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Companies Come And Go, But Brands Live On Forever

I’m not sure what the lead-in for this column should be. It could be “Old soldiers never die,” or some reference to “The Night of the Living Dead.” Either would be appropriate when you start talking about the history of brand names in our industry.

What started this line of thinking was a recent visit I made to a local RadioShack to pick up a new battery for my grandson’s Star Wars watch. As I entered I was greeted, as expected, by a display of RCA brand video products. Less expected was the extensive display of RCA brand audio, and then I realized that all the electronics carried that tri-letter logo.

Had I not retired from my full-time TWICE duties in March of last year I would have been alerted to the situation by the arrival of RadioShack’s 2001 catalog. What it heralded, of course, was not only the RCA brand’s shelf-space takeover, but the end of RadioShack’s long tradition of store brands.

Now largely gone from the consumer electronics scene are the Realistic and Optimus logos, as well as the RadioShack brand and the already departed Memorex name, which had about a two-year run early in the 1990s.

RadioShack’s house brands had a great run dating back into the 1950s, but, like other private label brands in this industry, appear to have pretty much come to the end of their useful life. Securities analysts frequently asked me why consumers were willing to spend more to buy hi-fi equipment at RadioShack. Certainly the reasons were varied, and included product quality, service and so forth. But one thing I was sure was important is that the chain took the nervousness out of the buying experience.

RadioShack always had a good, better, best and better-than-best selection of receivers, speakers, tape decks and the like. A consumer assisted by a qualified salesperson could safely buy the recommended product without worrying whether:

a) The piece was one the store was pushing;

b) The price was the best being offered by the store;

c) The unit was the same one that could be found elsewhere for a lot less.

The down side, of course, was that RadioShack had to lock in product and pricing with its suppliers on a very early cycle. The result in this volatile industry is that its retail pricing was often non-competitive.

The same situation is why Sears, the proud owner of the Kenmore and LXI and Sears brands, now also carries a complete line of national brand electronics and appliances. It’s always easier to go back to a name brand supplier for pricing concessions.

Anyway, the RadioShack situation brought to mind the closing of Montgomery Ward, which spells the end of the Airline brand and ends another chapter in the history of the Admiral name. Maytag owns the overall Admiral brand rights and licensed it for TVs to Ward. Whether there will be a reappearance is uncertain.

The Bradford logo did die away with the passing of the W. T. Grant chain, but not so for Capehart. An old time radio and TV brand, it was reborn, under license, by a firm that rode high on the surging 1970s demand for low-cost compact and console radio-phonos. It faded along with the company, only to get a new, if significantly shorter, life as a private TV brand for the NATM Buying Group.

Curtis Mathes is another in-and-out survivor. A historic TV brand, it was involved in several bankruptcies in the Seventies and Eighties, was valiantly revived with much fanfare at the start of the Nineties, and is now licensed to Samsung which uses it on sets it sells to Kmart — which also has TV rights to use Westinghouse. And then there’s Packard Bell, an old TV brand reborn as a computer logo and now owned, but not utilized, by NEC.

Where’s Philco? Ford sold it to GTE, which folded it into its Sylvania operation, then turned around and sold Philco and licensed Sylvania to Philips, which already owned Magnavox. Philco was always a thorn in Philips’ side as it kept the Philips brand out of the U.S. market. Now that it owns Philco, Philips keeps it pretty much under a cone of silence, letting it out now and then on promotional video products. The main effort now is to promote the Philips brand here, including co-branding Philips-Magnavox on TVs. Which makes one wonder why it still uses Norelco, rather than Philips, on its popular electric razors.

As for Sylvania, Philips walked away from it after GTE sold its light bulb business and overall Sylvania brand rights to Siemens, a major Philips rival in Europe. Siemens in turn has licensed video rights to Sylvania to Funai Electric, which had already picked up rights to the old Symphonic brand. Funai, a highly innovative, relatively small Japanese manufacturer which has more than held its own against its gigantic competitors, is this year adding Emerson to its stable of licensed video brands, and Wal-Mart and Target to its video customer base.

Emerson Radio itself, of course, isn’t the original Emerson. It started as Major Electronics, a maker of cheap portable phonos, when it snapped up rights to the Emerson logo. It now also owns rights to the venerable H.H. Scott brand.

Similarly, Fisher lives on, as does KLH, Jensen, Marantz, MacIntosh, Quasar and Sherwood, and I’m sure there are others. But they live only as empty shells with no real connection to the roots that made them household names.

Bob Gerson, TWICE editor-at-large, has covered the CE industry for more than 30 years. He is the founding editor of the publication and its longtime editor-in-chief. In recognition of his work, Gerson was presented with one of the first Consumer Electronics Association Lifetime Achievement Awards at CES last year.