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Brands that tickle the nostalgia
On the Warner Brothers logo, pure-play investing, and why Generation X and more than a few Millennials might have feelings for old companies
While it's often said (and may well be true) that the strongest memories are hailed by the sense of smell, we as of now have no real way to preserve and transmit the scents we encounter in daily life. It's not like recording a person's voice or taking a photograph -- we don't have a Polaroid for odors.
■ Consequently, we're often left to rely upon images to conjure up conceptual memories of the past. Words are great for making us think, but pictures are often better at stirring up conceptual memories: Not what you were thinking at a time, but a general sensation of how you felt.
■ Living in an advanced commercial market economy, then, it's no surprise that old corporate logos can spark oddly affectionate feelings, especially if they're familiar from one's youth. Take the classic Warner Communications logo, used from 1972 unti 1984 by the Warner Brothers movie studio. For members of Generation X and some Millennials, it's an image that could easily be associated with any number of movies or TV shows from childhood -- making it a "feel-good" memory, even if there's no specific reason why.
■ Corporate identities have been valuable goods for most of the last century, considering their impact on the marketing of mass-market goods and services. But it is strange to note how many of the strongest, most durable identities came from a very limited set of creators. If it's a corporate logo originating from the 1960s through the 1980s and it's still in use, there's a very good chance it was created by Saul Bass (AT&T, Continental Airlines, Warner), Paul Rand (ABC, IBM, Westinghouse), or the team of Chermayeff and Geismar (NBC, Chase Bank, Mobil Oil).
■ Given how frequently companies change hands today -- with mergers, spinoffs, and startups peppering the financial news almost as often as existing companies launch "refreshed" brand images -- it's possible that there won't be quite as much brand-related nostalgia built into the impressionable young minds of right now. Wall Street favors "pure plays", not highly diversified companies.
■ There's also the matter that conglomerate-style corporations had a much stronger raison d'etre in that period of stronger corporate identity than they have today: The taxation and regulatory environment of the 1960s through the early 1980s, especially, favored companies that expanded into diversified industries (which is how heavy-industry conglomerate Gulf + Western got its name associated with Paramount Pictures, and why Coca-Cola briefly owned Columbia Pictures).
■ But let this be a lesson: An investor group has revived the old Westinghouse brand (a Paul Rand creation) and successfully applied it to a bunch of new products that have nothing to do with the old company. The old name and the thoughtfully-crafted classic identity still have value today. If you're sitting on the ownership of one of those dormant classic brands, you might own a treasure more valuable than you might think.
They don’t build ‘em like that anymore