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Rescuing brands in distress

india Updated: Dec 22, 2006 16:29 IST
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When I close my eyes, I can see an orange-and-white tin container, and there is a smell that lingers close with my childhood memories. 

I am looking forward to a planned launch, or should I say, re-re-launch, of Cuticura talcum powder, though I am sure my orange-white fantasy is gone for ever.

Cuticura  was one of the more fancied brands when I was a child, but vanished later in the corporate jungle, and is said to have been resurrected now, though I have not seen the product or an ad promoting it lately.

The brand is still alive and kicking in western markets, with a tagline on the Cuticura.com  Web site that says, "Healing since 1865!"

Recent news reports say that Chennai-based Cholayil group, which bought Cuticura from Keyline Brands in 2002, is relaunching it in a major way across India.

While I await its born-again arrival, I think of the many brands that came and disappeared as I grew up. There was Murphy radio, Signal and McLean's toothpastes, Erasmic shaving blades, and a whole lot of others that grabbed mass attention and strong retention.

Some of them may be still around, but I am quite sure they are not being treated the way they once were.

By now, we all know the received wisdom about brands being great assets, valuable enough to be measured on balance sheets by companies like Infosys.

However, unlike real estate involving pieces of land, they do not stay where they are. They need nurturing through advertisements, product distribution and innovation. Certainly, they fit the maxim, "If you don't use it, you lose it!." (After all, memory and brands are close to each other, and must involve similar principles).

I wonder if there is some way old brands can be resurrected, sustained or at least, nurtured enough to provide value to its original owners. Wipro has effectively bought the Chandrika brand of soap popular in southern India through marketing rights obtained in 2003. Similar deals can rescue other wayward brands from the wilderness and bring joy to their owners and loyal consumers.

But who will make the effort? I think it would be wonderful to have vulture funds to rescue brands, though the vulture is hardly a good metaphor.

In the financial world, a vulture fund is an organisation that specialises in buying securities in distressed environments, such as high-yield bonds that are near default, or equities that face bankruptcy. Obviously, these are treated as risky but cheap assets by those who run vulture funds.

I think it would be a good idea for people comfortable with the nuances of advertising and marketing to set up special purpose vehicles to rescue brands in distress. Like venture capitalists looking for great ideas or vulture funds looking for cheap assets, brand-centric vulture funds can do wonders to help consumer goods companies.

Southern India is particularly strong in companies like CavinKare, the Cholayil group and the RKN Group which have built strong regional brands. These entrepreneurial companies can become effective Davids to counter Goliaths like Marico or Hindustan Lever if they acquire more of the sinking brands and give them a fresh lease of life by building business efficiency at the back-end.

Brand extensions are very much possible. For instance, I can easily see a cheap MP3 player being sold under the Murphy brand – if only someone will know how to swing it. Brands have a special mystique. In an age in which private equity, venture capital and vulture fund firms pick up hard assets such as companies or real estate, innovative financing may also help us rescue some charming old brands.

Email Narayanan Madhavan: madhavan .n@hindustantimes.com

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