"Putt-Putt for the fun of it, Putt-Putt for the fun of it…"
The catchy 1986 jingle for Putt-Putt Golf might bring back fond memories – for those of a certain age and geographic location – of playing miniature golf with "a date and your brother, or your mate and your mother."
For David Callahan, Putt-Putt LLC is more than a walk down memory lane. It is an opportunity to revitalize a brand and turn a profit. Putt-Putt's CEO and co-owner recognized that he needed to reposition the company's 57-year-old brand if it was going to compete against amusement parks and computer games.
"The Putt-Putt brand is still extremely popular and we're relying on nostalgia," says Mr. Callahan, 61, who is based in North Carolina. "People still enjoy playing games."
Mr. Callahan became CEO in 2000, following the death of founder Don Clayton in 1996, and he bought the company in 2004. Rather than focusing on expanding Putt-Putt, Mr. Callahan chose to get the company's balance sheet in order. That included getting rid of non-income-producing assets and the distribution business, paying down debt using Putt- Putt's and his own personal funds, hiring a brand consultant to update the firm's image, and reworking the product to keep it relevant in today's marketplace.
These days, Putt- Putt facilities require less real estate: about a hectare instead of two-and-a-half for a large Fun Center, which in addition to miniature golf includes batting cages, laser tag, go-karts, and climbing walls. Each location must also use clean energy – go-karts and bumper cars are powered by electricity instead of gas – and be smoke-free and wheelchair accessible.
The revitalization process also involves tapping into parental nostalgia of playing at a Putt-Putt when they were children, Mr. Callahan says. "It's similar to Dairy Queen. People remember it from their childhood in the 1950s and we're tapping into that (kind of) nostalgia."
Sentimentality is crucial when trying to resurrect a brand, says Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, since successful brand revitalization depends on people's positive associations. One benefit is that you're not starting from scratch when it comes to recognition. When BMW launched the Mini in 2002, for example, people still had fond memories of the British-made model. The resurrected brand helped spur media attention and act as a reminder to people of their first Mini, with the hope they would want to experience that feeling again.
River West Brands, a Chicago-based company, has made a business of buying dead or dying brands and resurrecting them. Its acquisitions include Brim coffee, Salon Selectives hair-care products, and Underalls undergarments. River West states on its website that besides being driven by profit, it is motivated by "a distinct sense of civic duty. At River West, we believe that brand icons are important parts of the history of "Americana" and American popular culture. When beloved brands fall by the wayside, so does a piece of history ... to the dismay of countless consumers, who struggle to be heard, and rarely have a say in the matter."
A quick web search turns up scores of dead or dying brands.
But beware, not all of them benefit from sentimentality. Some brands shouldn't be resurrected. "The Pinto used to blow up," says Matt Thomson, marketing professor at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business. It wasn't a good car, he adds, and even if it was redesigned, the negative association with the original might be too big to overcome.
Prof. Thomson emphasizes that while relaunching a historical brand might bring a great deal of media attention, it doesn't guarantee success.
"If they can't convert people who have never heard of the brand into consumers, it might not move beyond being a small niche player."
One potential problem for entrepreneurs is that their sentimental attachment to a brand might be so strong, they won't able to conduct unbiased market research, Prof. Thomson says. They might assume potential consumers will be as attached to the brand as they are, without considering hard data. Prof. Thompson urges entrepreneurs to complete unbiased market research before attempting to resurrect a brand.
At its peak, there were more than 250 Putt-Putts in the United States. These days the number has slumped to 60. But Mr. Callahan says the figure is not a concern, and that operations are more efficient because non-producing assets have been sold off. Putt-Putt generated more revenue during the most recent economic downturn because it filled a need for "staycations." As families opted for more modest holidays, Putt-Putt's prices of $6.50 for a round of mini-golf and $6.50 for go-karts proved to be popular.
Despite Putt-Putt's success during that time, Mr. Callahan continues to be cautious about growth. He wants to see an expansion of about three or four locations every five years. He's also getting international calls for franchises from such far-flung places as Nigeria, China and Dubai. (There are no current plans to bring a franchise to Canada.) Mr. Callahan emphasizes it's not easy to be successful. An entrepreneur looking to cash in on a heritage brand has to pay close attention to daily operations, stay financially liquid, ensure customers are satisfied, and stay relevant.
Those conditions are, of course, par for the course in any business.
Notable iconic brand buys
Moleskin: The sturdy notebooks manufactured by French bookbinders for centuries and used by such artists and writers as Van Gogh, Picasso, Bruce Chatwin and Ernest Hemingway ceased production in 1986. Twelve years later, an Italian publisher, Modo & Modo, resurrected the brand. The notebooks can be found in bookstores around the world and at moleskin.com. The high quality of the notebooks continues to be guaranteed and Modo & Modo was bought out in 2006 for 60 million euros.
Mini: The iconic Mini was built in 1959 by the British Motor Corp., to give Britons a fuel-efficient car in the wake of the energy crisis. BMC, which eventually became Rover Group, continued to make Minis until 2000. The car was a success on the rally car circuit, played a starring role in the original Italian Job movie, and was a 1960s icon. By the time the last Mini rolled off the assembly line, BMW owned Rover and it re-launched the Mini in 2002, to great success.
Palm: Long before smart phones, Palm was synonymous with personal digital assistants (PDAs). In the 1990s, owning a Palm Pilot allowed you to access your calendar and contact information, and it cemented your arrival on Bay Street. As technology improved, Palm continued to modernize its PDA, which eventually became a smart phone. Even though it was the dominant PDA of its time, its performance as a smart phone lagged. In 2010, HP acquired Palm for $1.2 billion (U.S.) and it has yet to use the device's name on any new products.
What to look for when assessing a dying or defunct brand
1. People have a positive association with it.
2. It has the ability to motivate those with a positive association to buy the product – liking the brand isn't enough, people who like the brand need to want it.
3. It is able to motivate consumers who don't remember the original, to buy the product or service.
4. The brand needs to offer a relevant product or service that also delivers a profit margin.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT