Your New Victrola iPod: Do Brand-Name Auctions Make Sense?

Back in December 2010, Racebook Marketing Concepts held a Brand Name Auction during which "150 Timeless Trademarks and Domains" were offered for sale. But the auction was more bust than boom: only about 50 people showed up, with a few more bidders participating online. The prices, too, were disappointing, with the highest bid coming in at $45,000 for Shearson, $23,500 for Meister Brau, and $30,000 for Handi-Wrap. Collier's, a magazine brand with a long history, sold for $2000, to someone acting as a third-party representative for a publishing company, according to AdAge.

Part of the reason for the low turnout, and low returns, was likely confusion over just what one got for the winning bid. The folks who bought the iconic record label Victrola for $1000 got the rights to an intent-to-use trademark application for a wide variety of goods and services in Class 9, including CDs, televisions, computer hardware and software, calculators, printers, amps, speakers, and cellphones. The catch is that since the ITU was filed in 2006 and published for opposition in 2008, the new owners have very little time to verify actual use and submit a specimen of use. Many of the other brands sold were on the basis of ITUs, although a few, like Handi-Wrap for plastic wrap, were actual registered trademarks.

Now this kind of intellectual property dealing is familiar territory to trademark attorneys, but to the average marketing exec or startup entrepreneur, it's rough going. The distinction between trademark and brand is something that naming companies like my own, Catchword, have to explain to the majority of new clients. And a "brand name auction" certainly sounds like you'd be getting more than just a trademark application; it could imply a logo, collateral, advertising, or even patents to a product. Perhaps it's not deliberately misleading, but it's certainly overpromising.

Frome a brand perspective, the important question is whether you can repurpose a brand name. This is a different matter than the revival of a brand, as was the case with TaB. Coke never stopped making TaB, but the brand suffered a deep decline in popularity when Diet Coke was introduced. But some people remained fans, and the brand continues to be produced; it's even gained something of a cult status with celebrities, and has a whole fansite devoted to its no-cal goodness (ILoveTaB.com). TaB never died. It just took a little breather.

But take one of the unsold brand names from the auction, Annie Hall. The trademark for this name is specifically for clothing, and the name itself is obviously derived from the 1977 Woody Allen movie. I'm not surprised it didn't sell; speaking as a consumer, the last time I dressed like Annie Hall was in, oh, 1978. Annie Hall as a character is iconic because of the way she dressed. The influence of that style—vintage, layered menswear—has been strong and persistent, and women's style is better for it. But the name, and the brand, say "1977" and "slightly crazy" much louder than they say "fashionable." Reviving the brand and trying to invest it with a modern feel seems implausible, if not impossible. Perhaps someone will buy it just to print T-shirts that say "Annie Hall" on them.

Other brands, like Shearson, will probably have an easier time. Allen Adamson says that "the Shearson brand, unlike many others in the financial services category, didn't disappear because people lost trust or confidence in its ability to deliver sound advice and solid service ... Shearson had a good reputation, one of the few names in the industry that were never tarnished." Repurposing Shearson into another financial services company will work because it never got a bad rep, and because people's memories are hazy. They know the name Shearson was somehow associated with investing, but they will likely never remember its history or realize the name is being used by a totally different entity.

But what about brands that are more than just names? I'd certainly put Victrola into that category—it wasn't just a record label, it was an actual product that still turns up in movies and television as shorthand for "old fashioned." How likely is it that Victrola can be imbued with another meaning? Even the construction of the name is old-timey sounding, a contraction of Victor (the company that manufactured them) and pianola, another word for player piano. Perhaps it has a future with a company that produces steampunk DVD players that run on gears and cranks. Likewise, Infoseek (which went for $2000 as part of a package deal) has the stink of "failed Internet search engine" all over it. The descriptive two-word combo tech name is so very mid-'90s and has no personality at all.

In the end, it seems to me that very few of the brands offered for sale were worth the money. They didn't have a lot of brand awareness, the trademarks are pretty restrictive, and, frankly, the names just aren't that good. The days of search engines called InfoSeek, shampoos called Short & Sassy, and movie chains called General Cinema are long past. The demand for new, interesting, and unique brand names has never been greater, and while recycling is no-brainer for paper and plastic, it's a lot tougher to make it work for brand names. And don't even think about trying to resurrect Edsel or Pinto!

Laurel Sutton is a partner and cofounder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.

[Image: Flickr user Roger Smith]

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