NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Collier's, the weekly magazine that published investigative journalism, essays and fiction from the likes of Hemingway, Cather, Lewis, Salinger and Vonnegut, was shut down in 1957. Now it exists as brittle, yellowing copies and, more abstractly, as a trademark that, just before noon today, was purchased for $2,000 in an auction held in a chandeliered meeting room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
After emerging from a quick bidding process that opened at $1,000, the buyer, a babyfaced man wearing a navy-blue blazer and khakis slung a backpack over a shoulder and strode to a table to the right of the auctioneer to sign the paperwork and hand over a cashier's check that will hold the onetime icon of muckraking journalism until a closing date later this month. Later, he identified himself to a reporter only as a third-party representative for a publishing company.
Secrecy was the watchword at an auction of more than 100 brands that gone unused in recent years and were bought up by a company called Brands USA Holdings. Those on the block ranged from once near-household names, like Meister Brau, Braniff and Old Nick candy bars, to much lesser known ones. The 50 or so bidders and spectators were largely those representatives equipped with precise bidding instructions and closed lips. Some of them worked for entities unknown even to the organizers. Brand promoters and food and beverage manufacturers were also in attendance, but their reluctance to jump into the mix may have been due to the auction's novelty, said John Cuticelli, CEO of Racebrook, a real-estate investment firm that organized the event.
The main format used was a Dutch auction, which begins with a high asking price and goes lower, with each bid barked out by the typical auctioneer's rapid-fire, rodeo style ("10,000 bid. 15,000? 10,000, once, twice ...") and the occasional folksy interjection: "Just bid 50,000 and you'll never forget what you paid." Three "spotters" roaming the audience identified bidders with a yell and tried to gin up interest. All the men from Racebrook wore dark suits, red ties and a single carnation to match.
After a practice round, bidding began. Shearson, the financial brand unused since 1994 when it was bought by Citigroup's predecessor and merged with Smith Barney, was the first to go, fetching $45,000 from a proxy buyer who was not only unknown but unseen, phoning in his bids. Next went Meister Brau, essentially the prototypical light beer, for $32,500 and Handi-Wrap for $30,000, the latter to a surly man in a trench coat who refused to give his email address to the auctioneers and told a reporter, upon handing him a business card, to back away because the corporation he represents has a strict policy of not speaking to press.
From there the bids plummeted, with Shower Mate, Sun and Surf, Continental Illinois and other vaguely familiar-sounding bits of American business history going for less than $10,000 a piece. For $2,000, a pair of intense-looking men in navy suits sitting in the front row made off with The Linen Closet, Infoseek, Sports Heroes and the regrettably named clothing brand Big Yank. Computer City and the Financial Corp. of America went for $1,000.
But by the end of the hourlong auction the vast majority of the brands listed "Jeopardy!"-style on a large grid were still available, including Annie Hall, Cocomalt, Kitten Soft, Kool Shake, Nudit, Permastrate, Pharmhouse, Party Tyme, Relaxacizor, Hot Pants, and Seniority.
In an interview afterward, Mr. Cuticelli was surprised by what he saw as the attendees' timidity. "I wondered what they were waiting for," he said. He added that after the bidding was finished he was approached by a number of people who wanted in, including a media group that wanted to buy the whole lot, including those brands already auctioned off. He attributed the delayed reaction to skepticism about the process and his company's coming to grips with the possible consumer for this sort of thing. He did say that Racebook is open to hosting another brand auction. "I'm not disheartened by this," he said.
One disappointed attendee was bothered by a format that had bidding begin at $100,000, only to drop quickly. "That set a negative tone," this person said, adding, "There wasn't a lot of respect for the value of the brand. There was a lot of opportunistic buying going on."
Mr. Cuticelli said the winners receive rights to the trademark free and clear of any historical issues. "All the buyers have to do is back it with a product."
How exactly they'll do that remains unclear. Some, like Meister Brau, don't reside too deep in the collective memory, and it's easy to imagine someone taking the Pabst Blue Ribbon tack with it. If there's one thing PBR has taught us, grassroots marketing done on the shoestring, a nostalgia brand, and a beer that's cheap to buy, cheaper to make and tastes like piss can yield a marketing success story.
The attendee who agreed to speak off the record came in with an eye to buying Meister Brau for between $20,000 and $25,000 with plans, inspired by PBR, Rheingold and others, to sign an manufacturing agreement with a contract brewer, put together a distribution plan, and then market it to younger (legal) drinkers. Instead, Meister Brau was picked up by third-party representative who looked more like well-heeled courier than a dealmaker, dressed in green Adidas with white stripes, a quilted Burberry coat and a messenger bag.
The new owners of the painfully general Financial Corp. of America or, say, the generally painful Homestake Mining have their work cut out for them. Happily, recent years have shown us that so-called zombie brands can indeed walk the Earth. The Ford Taurus, Commodore computer, White Cloud and Tab are all examples of once-dead brands that have been resurrected in some form or fashion. Now we'll see if someone can make it work for Big Yank.
~ ~ ~
Contributing: Rupal Parekh