Monday 22 January 2018

Sweet memories and fondness for a dram bring brands back from dead

Products which were once household names are being revived and thriving on their reputation from times past, writes Mark Keenan

The Urney Choc- olate Factory workers -- all 600 of them -- were snapped in the 1960s for a newspaper advertising campaign back when the leading Irish confectionery brand must have seemed invincible. Urney sold more chocolate in Ireland than anyone else. It had offered successive generations of the same families jobs for life. Then the bottom fell out of its market, bigger brands like Cadbury's ramped up the competition and 42 years ago the Urney factory closed.

In the photograph, hundreds of people line up for the camera in their immaculate white lab coats and hats -- all massed outside in front of their state of the art manufacturing plant.

This corporate photograph could have been taken for any modern engineering or pharmaceutical-based company with a proud and ebullient corporate culture. But it's in black and white.

The photograph made its last public appearance not in an advert but in the social history exhibition "Sweet Memories", which toured Ireland's libraries in 2010 to tell the Urney Chocolates story -- as history.

Urney fell into the brand graveyard, where it joined a long list of other former household names and legends. Brands will always die because of bankruptcy -- such as Lehmans, or because of a takeover, like Eagle Star. Relatively recent additions to the brand boneyard include Double Diamond, Pan Am, Woolworth, TWA, Pontiac and Kodachrome.

But some are making a comeback. The president of JB Williams once cited Brylcreem as being "unkillable". Ovaltine is once again a household name and retro sweetshop chains are opening all over Ireland to peddle the revitalised confectionery brands of the past.

Nissan has just announced plans to revive the Datsun brand for the Russian and Indian markets because of the good name and fond memories the rugged Japanese brand of the 1960s and 1970s still holds there. It follows more recent motoring revivals of the Mini Cooper and Beetle brands. The recently deceased Pontiac may follow.

The American expert on legacy brands Garland Pollard (who includes Hawaii Five-0 and Fresca among his most successful of brand Lazaruses) says companies make mistakes when they think they can "fully own" a legacy brand. He believes such brands have a life of their own -- even after they are defunct. He describes a legacy brand, dead or alive as: "A collective idea, plus a collection of physical items, a collection of stories and myths and a group of people who like it."

Like many brand experts, he believes brands usually fall down and die because of mismanagement and neglect and not because there's much wrong with them in the first place. Ray Coyle has proved as much with Tayto -- ailing and flailing, until bought by the Doritos founder and now, having published his olde-time memoirs, Mr Tayto is everywhere. The Irish international soccer team have even had their picture taken with him recently as one of their sponsors for the European Championships.

Ireland has its own rash of revived brands including the aforementioned Urney Chocolates, which three years ago was acquired by Leo Cummins. He took over Wilton Candy some years ago (Macaroon bars) in a management buyout and has gone on a spree of buying and reviving old Irish confectionery, starting with Urney, which he picked up in 2009, and, more recently, Cleeves Slab Toffee.

In a market where customers and retailers are conscious of promoting Irish-made products, the new-old arrivals like Macaroon bars are once again building market share and taking up substantial display spaces.

"There's an advantage in reviving these brands because they already come with a distinct history, with tried and tested product recipes which have a record of pleasing people. There are still plenty of people about who have strong and happy memories of them. Often there was nothing at all wrong with the products, their businesses just fell by the wayside for any number of different reasons," says Cummins, whose latest plan is to revive the Cleeve's "Golden Days" loose toffee range, a favourite of schoolchildren here in the seventies and eighties.

Confectionery and snack foods is a sector where nostalgia goes a long way, as evidenced by the recent near-death revivals of Sam Spudz by Largo Foods and Silvermints (cool clean hero anyone?) by Jacobs Fruitfield.

Cummins reached even further back in time to revive Hadji Bey Turkish Delight, once a firm Irish favourite from the 1930s, but a brand which even the oldest consumers may have trouble remembering.

So how far back can you go to find a brand to revive? Can we presume that you need to stick to living memory to cash in on nostalgia and good feeling? Not so, it seems.

Earlier this month, amid a glitzy London reception, Irish Distillers launched Yellow Spot whiskey. Or rather, it was relaunched. The single pot 12-year-old and its recently revived 10-year-old sibling Green Spot, were once popular pub tipples round these parts -- back about 100 years ago when Ireland unquestionably dominated the world of whiskey.

The "Spots", which also included a Blue and a Red, were by Mitchells Wine Merchants, which used to buy the whiskey from Jameson and mature it in old wine casks.

A hundred years ago, Ireland had dozens of distilleries, but by the time the Spots were bought, new owners Irish Distillers were the only distilling company left trading in the Republic.

The whiskey implosion started before WWI when new methods of blending whiskey were adapted by the Scots but spurned in Ireland where the single pot still method was maintained. Scotch got cheaper and smoother. The US, Ireland's biggest market introduced Prohibition. The Civil War and the trade war with Britain did the rest. When Prohibition was ditched, there was no Irish whiskey left to sell them -- only Scotch.

When bonded sales stopped in the 1960s, Irish distillers bought the "Spot" brands and continued making only "Green Spot" in piffling amounts. Supplied only for the collectors' market, it sold just 2,000 bottles a year.

Then, through the last decade, an interest began in gourmet whiskey and collectors, helped by the internet and the revival of Scots single malt whiskys, started to explore more diverse brands and began buying more bottles of Green Spot. Not long ago, Irish Distillers realised what they had with Green Spot and with Redbreast, the only other Irish single pot whiskey to survive -- and began to push them. Within a few years, it is estimated Green Spot will sell 50,000 bottles a year. "Green Spot is the same whiskey, but because it had so small a following, we had scope to shape it and rebrand it. Redbreast, with a more dedicated following, could not be rebranded as much. But with both brands we have a long heritage in place already -- which is vitally important when it comes to premium whiskey," says a spokesman for Irish Distillers.

And how successful can an Irish brand revival be? In the 1980s, serial entrepreneur John Teeling decided to get into the whiskey business and revived a distillery which had closed in the 1950s.

He restored the complex and turned it into a tourist attraction as well as a working distillery. He sourced single pot stills from the ruins of the old Tullamore distillery and, at great pains, he rebuilt not one but four extinct brands -- Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Connemara and Greenore.

His efforts attracted the attentions of world spirits giant Jim Beam. Chief marketing officer Kevin George says: "When it comes to marketing whiskey in a world market, history and heritage is paramount. It's part of the whole experience. When we looked at Cooley's four brands, the heritage was a huge part of it. Americans love drinking a whiskey that was made in the 1750s that there's this ancient distillery still making it. It was a big part of drawing our interest."

The reward for Teeling was the €73m price tag paid for Cooley earlier this year.

And there's nothing dead about that.

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