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Companies that Excel at Bringing Brands Back from the Grave
CBGB's was an icon of the late seventies early eighties music scene. Although even in its heyday it was little more than a cave like space with a bar at one end and a stage at the other, the venue helped spawn the careers of such well-known bands as The Talking Heads and Blondie, among many, many others. As the saying goes, however, “Those were the good old days.” Over time, the so called alternative rock music scene became mainstream and CBGB's was viewed as a relic of the past. It closed down amidst an outpour of loyalty, but the truth was that it simply couldn't pay the bills anymore.
Fast forward several years and the CBGB name has been resurrected in support of a concert series in New York City. This is a genius reuse of an old, but storied brand. This is interesting, in part, because it is a relatively high profile, in New York anyway, example of what some companies do every day—bring brands back from the grave.
A classic example of this is the AVENO brand of oatmeal baths and skin products. This product line was purchased by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ - Free J&J Stock Report) just before the turn of the century and has subsequently been transformed into a major skin care brand. When JNJ bought AVENO, it was probably best known for selling simple packets of oatmeal that one's grandmother might have put into a bath to help ease the itching and pain of skin ailments like poison ivy. Although the previous owner, privately held S.C. Johnson & Son, had expanded the line beyond those packets, AVENO simply wasn't a focus for that firm.
Johnson & Johnson saw the product's history and took a leap of faith. It refreshed and expanded the product lineup, and put its marketing and distribution might behind it. Now, AVENO isn't viewed as a stogy old brand of kitchen pantry medicine—it's a staple at leading retailers. Having a $175 billion market cap, Johnson & Johnson can throw its marketing and distribution weight behind a product which is often enough to move the needle on an old brand. That said, the company has greatly expanded on the brand and created a desirable product lineup that stands up well against its competition. In simple terms, JNJ gave the brand a little love. This is something that the consumer side of Johnson & Johnson has done many times over the years.
There are other companies that do similar things, but don't have the financial power or market reach of a JNJ. For example, $1 billion market cap B&G Foods (BGS) is a relatively tiny player in the grocery isle, but it has made a solid and growing business out of taking on the unloved brands of its larger competitors. A major recent transaction was the 2007 purchase of the Cream of Wheat brand from industry giant Kraft (KFT - Free Kraft Stock Report). That product group had very little marketing prior to B&G's purchase and was, effectively, left to languish. The brand held a dominant category position, but the category was simply too small for such a large company to support.
For B&G, however, Cream of Wheat was a material product. The company quickly worked to integrate production and increase marketing. Then it went to its “playbook” and started to expand the product offerings under the Cream of Wheat brand. Most importantly, it introduced new flavors, effectively changing the stodgy old staple into something new and exciting. Sales, which had languished under Kraft have since begun to show some life. The recent introduction of chocolate flavored Cream of Wheat is expected to help keep the top line expanding.
B&G Foods' most recent purchase was the Culver Specialty Brands unit from Unilever (UL) for a paltry $325 million. That sum is small for a company the size of Unilever, but material for B&G. The acquisition brings with it brands such as Mrs. Dash. This product is an odd duck in the grocery aisle, but it is well known. Adding some extra marketing and innovation to Mrs. Dash could easily push the needle here.
These two companies are excellent examples of innovative and dynamic entities that have a history of reviving unloved brands. Both pay sizable dividends and have solid operations. B&G is a much more aggressive option, based on its size and leverage (debt makes up about three quarters of its capital structure), but probably has more growth potential than JNJ. For example, success with Mrs. Dash could add materially to B&G's top and bottom lines, but such a small product would probably do little for a company the size of JNJ. That said, JNJ has a storied history and earns Value Line's top marks for Safety (1, Highest) and Financial Strength (A++). Moreover, JNJ shares appear to be mired in a slump right now despite solid long-term prospects. Conservative, long-term investors would do well to consider the healthcare giant.
These two companies, however, aren't the only ones that are known for taking unloved and forgotten brands and bringing them back to life. Two more that quickly come to mind are V.F. Corporation (VFC) and Iconix Brand Group (ICON), both of which reside in the apparel industry.
While $16 billion market cap V.F. as a company isn't well known, its brands are, including Lee, Wrangler, Nautica, The North Face, and Vans, among others. The recent purchase of Timberland is the perfect example of the company's approach to buying well known, but often struggling entities. As V.F. works Timberland into its distribution network, it’s likely that sales will strengthen. Iconix, meanwhile, is a much smaller player, closer in size to B&G Foods. It owns an unusual collection of brands, including Candie's, Joe Boxer, London Fog, and Ocean Pacific. It focuses on marketing brands, while licensing the use of those brands to retailers and manufacturers. The Sharper Image was the company's latest acquisition, which is an odd fit that could be used to expand into additional product categories. The company also recently acquired material shares in the Peanuts and Material Girl brands.
Rehabing old brands is a skill that requires a very specific corporate culture. The four companies above have a penchant for succeeding where others have floundered and are all worth considering as investment options, especially if you like a good fixer upper.
At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.