Harish Bhat

Comeback product

HARISH BHAT | Updated on March 13, 2014

Keep ticking: Legacy watchmaker HMT’s Bangalore factory photographed in 1971 THE HINDU ARCHIVES   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

CT14BHAT2   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Can old, iconic brands that have disappeared be reincarnated?

Motorola recently announced the grand launch of its Moto-G smartphones in India. Here was a brand that had disappeared from India a few years ago, and now it is back! During this absence, most of us had even forgotten the Motorazr, the sleek clamshell phone that had taken the country by storm around a decade ago. As Samsung, Nokia, Apple and Micromax dominated the mobile phone mindspace, Motorola silently vanished.

Yet, when Moto-G was launched, buyers here suddenly woke up to brand Motorola once again. From early accounts, the new phone has been a big draw. Positioned as the most powerful budget Android smartphone, reviews have been positive. The bright and vibrant colours clearly signal a transformed Motorola. Even the unique sales model has captured consumers’ imagination — Moto-G is sold exclusively through online retailer Flipkart during the initial launch period.

In a completely different product category, a similar development has held my attention. For years together, I had not seen The Caravan magazine on newsstands. This was a periodical I had read avidly during my high school and college days, and it had vanished suddenly in the late 1980s. A few months ago, I unexpectedly saw it once again, in a slick new format, at a newspaper vendor near Flora Fountain in Mumbai. I recalled the magazine fondly from my younger days, bought it immediately, and have enjoyed reading it since.

Apparently The Caravan, launched in 1940, was discontinued in 1988, only to be revived 22 long years later in 2010. Promoted as “India’s only long-form narrative journalism magazine”, it now boasts accomplished writers including Ramachandra Guha, William Dalrymple and Fatima Bhutto. I intend to remain a loyal subscriber if its current excellent quality of content is maintained.

What Moto-G and The Caravan have brought home to me is that brands which disappear can suddenly reappear in a new incarnation. Many great brands vanish from time to time. Reasons can range from financial bankruptcy, to lack of interest amongst owners, to some unforeseen catastrophe. Think of the once powerful aviation brand Pan Am. Or the popular toothpaste Forhans. Or General Motors’ mighty Hummer vehicles. They are no more. Do their souls rest in peace forever, or will they soon be back with us in a new reincarnation?

Whether you propose to relaunch, acquire or divest a dormant brand, you may wish to bear in mind a few factors.

Nostalgia

Great brands that have vanished or failed always generate nostalgic memories. Because the brand was much loved, and perhaps larger than life, people associate it with those distant, and often memorable phases of their life. Which old brand do you recall with fond nostalgia?

I will always associate the orange tube of Forhans toothpaste with my wonderful schooldays in Madurai, because that is the brand our family used then. My sisters and I cribbed a little that it did not foam, but were also secretly happy that we were using a product which was “created by a dentist, and very good for our gums”. If the Forhans brand were relaunched today, the nostalgia may well lead me, and many others I think, to try it once again — at least for old times’ sake.

Does this mean that reincarnated brands appeal primarily to older consumers, as nostalgia is a function of age? Should such brands target an older age group as their primary consumer segment? This may be a good thing to do in any case, as there are few brands that specifically target older people, which is a large and growing demographic segment.

Residual equity

Some brands may have largely disappeared from public view, but continue to have strong residual equity in the minds of consumers. During my stint in the watches industry, I was fascinated by the equity that HMT Watches continues to have across India. This is the brand that had pioneered the wrist watches category in our country several decades ago. It may not have been widely advertised or promoted for several years now, but tens of millions of Indians continue to wear HMT watches. So they are in touch with the brand every single day, and hold positive views about the products. At most watch outlets, despite the dominance of brands such as Titan, Sonata and Timex, HMT still occupies a small but definite space. The mechanical, automatic and quartz wrist watches offered by HMT (visit its website for details) are surprisingly quite good and well priced.

Passage of time

There are several big brands of yesteryear which are dormant but possess good residual equity. They are waiting to be resurrected. That will call for smart investment, and the crafting of a brand image that can connect with today’s modern consumer.

Motorola was away from India for only three years before it resurfaced with the Moto-G smartphone. Kingfisher Airlines is still fresh in our minds, though it stopped flying several months ago. It would be far easier to reincarnate these “recently disappeared” brands in their product categories, as they still inhabit our memories, and these industries continue to be large and relevant. However, such brands may not necessarily evoke nostalgia, which is associated with the more distant past.

On the other hand, brands such as Agfa in photography, or The Illustrated Weekly of India in magazines, which disappeared a long time ago, may require an entirely different reincarnation approach. They may evoke fond nostalgia, but may need to enter a new or adjacent product category because their erstwhile category — photo films for Agfa, or typewriters for Remington Rand — has been wiped out or diminished by the march of technology or large shifts in consumer behaviour. They may need to create new format or content — like The Caravan has indeed done — to cater to current consumer preferences. Reinvention will therefore be an integral part of any such reincarnation.

Key questions

Marketers contemplating the possible future of brands which have disappeared or are dormant, should ask themselves whether

∙ the brand continues to have spontaneous or prompted recall in the minds of people

∙ there is a broad positive perception of the brand in people’s minds

∙ the brand can get reincarnated in its earlier category, or in an attractive and credible adjacent space

∙ there is an authentic story about the brand which can now be re-crafted or re-packaged in an imaginatively contemporary way to connect with today’s consumer

Brands that have disappeared may yet hold great future value if they answer positively to the above questions. Let’s raise a toast to this thought, over a reincarnated bottle of Campa Cola.

Harish Bhat is the author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution. The views expressed here are personal. bhatharish@hotmail.com

Published on March 13, 2014

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