Have you ever found yourself Googling Google while crawling around on the cold Linoleum floor in search of your lost Frisbee? If so, then allow me to offer hearty congratulations, for you’ve just accomplished a rare feat: the Eponymous Brand Troika.
And what, pray tell, is an Eponymous Brand? Well, am I glad that you’ve asked!
An Eponymous Brand (EB) is a product whose name has become synonymous with the service that it renders. Basically, it is a company who has reached the nadir of its marketing goals – to dominate the market with such alacrity that all other competing products, despite their best efforts, are also referred to by their competitor’s name – a true marketing bitch slap and a boon to any company that is able to not only corner, but box in their market by the sheer badassedness of their wares.
The chances of any given product becoming an EB approach that of any random peewee football player making it to the NFL. It takes a combination of great product development (Kleenex was originally created to stuff into gas masks in World War I, but was quickly found to be useful in the dressing of wounds, and subsequently used by nurses to remove makeup), marketing acumen (Pfizer-owned Chapstick had the foresight to hire a beautiful, talented skier named Suzy “Chapstick” Chafee as their spokesperson in the 1970’s) and luck (Escalator’s arriving on the scene at precisely the same time as television and junk food*.)
Of course, there are also brands that reach this mountaintop only to tumble down the other side: products that once seemed destined for perpetual omnipresence, forever changing the way that we eat, or play, or work, only to fade into that disappointing morass of consumer history where cumulatively they make up the conglomerate known as Fail, Inc.
Take, for example the following brands, all of which were at one time perched atop the quivering apex of consumer delight. Some of them blew their chances by sitting on their laurels as savvy competitors perfected their formulas, others by overplaying their hands, still others by sheer dimwitted ignorance, or, in at least one case, by somehow managing to “accomplish” all three hallmarks of branded doom at once.
These are they: Fail, Inc.
Folgers Coffee: There was a time not long ago when the best part of waking up truly was having Folgers in your cup. Mostly, this was because the Greatest Generation was OK with drinking old, powdered coffee that tasted like rusty gutter water. Hell, they walked 10 miles uphill in the snow every morning for a cup of the stuff.
This was, of course, before the two teachers and the writer (!) who schemed up the world-beating bean brand that became known as Starbucks had any clue that their pre-hipster idea would have the mass appeal that it has gained. Once the Big Marketers got their hands on the concept of serialized coffee shops, it was all over for Folgers, a company that now seems content to provide nothing more than an outdated pot-smuggling masking agent when it had every opportunity to seize the billion-dollar market of the daily latte fix.
Kool-Aid: Staying with the theme of opportunities missed in the financially super-liquid beverage industry, I present to you the strange case of Kool-Aid. This sugary concoction first hit American dinner tables in the early 50’s, after General Foods bought the recipe from its inventor Edwin Perkins, who had originally called his powdered potation Fruit Smack. General Foods had the good business sense to rebrand their sugar water and to give it a fun cartoon spokesperson, the not-so-creatively named Kool-Aid Man.
The brand was well on its way to total global brand domination when the strangest thing happened: a paranoid sociopath named Jim Jones convinced an entire village of societal drop-outs to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid in a massive suicide pact, thus forever linking the otherwise wildly popular brand with what was one of the world’s worst groupthink decisions. As they say in futbol, “UNLUCKY!”
Meanwhile, Gatorade – a sports drink company founded by a University of Florida medical research team and a bankrupt divorcee who stumbled his way into creating Glaceau Smart Water swooped in on a wide-open market that Kool Aid pioneered. Gatorade has since built the industry into one of the more lucrative enterprises in the food space while Kool Aid remains a tired political cliché.
The Girl Scouts: OK, sure, the Girl Scouts are not primarily a deliverer of goods and services. But they do make a line of cookies that is by all accounts** incredibly delicious, to the point of utter addictiveness. Unfortunately, the Girl Scout distribution method is stuck in the 1800’s, when similar medicines were only available from traveling barkers and reclusive shaman.
It is 2012, yet our only avenue for procuring the best cookies in the world (Thin Mints, BTW and FTW) is to wait patiently in the front of a busy supermarket for a hung-over yoga mom with red, wary eyes to arrive with a van full of baked goods and a gaggle of brown-suited pre-teens and set up shop. If anyone in that organization had any marketing sense at all, the Girl Scouts would be Jamboreeing at the top of the former Trump Tower, which they would now own and have exclusive use of for whatever scouting activities the young ladies actually do. ***
Atari: Starting in 1972, Atari rolled out the world’s first commercially successful cabinet video game, a blip-bouncing bit of digital genius called Pong. Next came the first home console system (created to deliver the wildly popular bar game Pong to the living room). After that: the first killer home video game system, the 2600, which was instantly loved by millions of fascinated geeks and slackers****.
Atari was Apple before Apple. There was a short, brilliant window of success in which everything that Atari touched turned to gold. Virtually overnight, a billion dollar industry cropped up, fed by the pimple-popping competitive juices of Generation X. Atari diversified its product offerings into home computer systems that would compete with early Apple computers.
Flush***** with success from their biggest hit yet, the insanely popular Pacman arcade game, Atari rushed a poorly conceived console version through to the home market, only to receive disappointed reviews from expectant video game enthusiasts everywhere.
Undaunted, Atari followed that colossal error up by repeating its mistake in rushing the development of the E.T., The Extraterrestrial console game version of the smash hit movie. Given only six weeks of development time in order to meet the holiday buying season, Atari game developers turned in what is widely considered to be one of the worst video games in the history of the industry. Compounding the mistake, Atari overestimated demand for the game and manufactured millions of units of the E.T. game most of which ended up crushed and buried in a remote landfill in New Mexico.
This series of failures ushered in a massive, years-long slump for the entire video game industry and cost Atari a 97% loss of the market that they had not only invented, but thoroughly dominated until hubris and greed made them the poster child for Eponymous Brand failure.
*Actual timing of Escalator Corp. product popularity in relation to the rise of the fast food industry and the popularity of television sets in American culture is debatable.
**Mostly my own.
***Conversely, I would be remiss to not point out the total incompetence of the Boy Scouts, who should easily have seen the muted success and great potential of their sister scouts and capitalized with a product line of their own. Sadly, the only thing that the Boy Scouts seem to peddle these days is pedophilia.
****Ironically, in 1976, after selling the company to Warner Communications, Atari founding partner Nolan Bushnell used a portion of his proceeds to purchase a mega-mansion previously owned by the Folgers family. The purchase, while likely a fine and comfortable decision for Bushnell, presaged a series of horrendous business failures to come for the company that he created.
*****In the researching of this story, I discovered that the Alcorn brothers, a pair of middle class stoners whom I had grown up next to in California’s Bay Area and whom my own brother and I had enthusiastically played video games with and who always seemed to have Atari console games waaaay before anyone else did were actually the nephews of Allan Alcorn, the inventor of Pong.
Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who writes from the spidery loft of an old log cabin on a ranch in Emma, Colorado. His essays, literary, food and music reviews, PR work, novel excerpts, letters, poetry and other detritus can be found at www.corbyanderson.wordpress.com, and he can be reached at email@example.com.