Westinghouse, the Undead brand

May 30, 2011

You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse.

Those of us old enough to remember Westinghouse Electric as the great industrial powerhouse it once was will recognize that slogan and the iconic Circle W logo with some affection.

In what is now known as the Mad Men era of the 20th century the logo adorned the items of everyday life, from the Dog-o-matic hotdog maker to fridges, vacuum cleaners, ceiling fans, cookers, toasters, irons… every conceivable electrical appliance for modern convenience brought to you by the driving innovation of Westinghouse.

Like arch-rival GE, Westinghouse once bestrode the industrial landscape of the world producing amazing technical inventions in defense electronics, power generation, refrigerated transport, nuclear engineering and so on.

The logo is still visible today. It appears on an odd assortment of products, from solar panels, light bulbs, flat panel TVs and air conditioners. But it’s not your father’s Westinghouse. It’s not even Westinghouse.

Unlike GE, the company no longer exists. Westinghouse Electric officially died on December 1st 1997.

On that date a great industrial icon of the 20th Century completed one of the most sweeping corporate transformations in history by morphing itself into CBS Corporation, the broadcasting and media company it acquired in 1995. What was left of the firm’s industrial business was sold in pieces.

And so the 111-year-old industrial icon founded on the genius of George Westinghouse vanished from the face of the earth.

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While large corporations are, in one way, merely legal fictions which produce returns out of interchangeable assets, in another way they have a life of their own.

Whatever the complexity of events leading up to the dismantling of an industrial giant and its transformation it into a media company, the demise of Westinghouse demonstrates the resilience of a brand name.

Getting with it.

In 1998 the company, now CBS Corporation, did two things that would ensure the Westinghouse name would live beyond the grave. It sold its remaining manufacturing asset, the nuclear energy business, to British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), along with rights to the Westinghouse name. BNFL in turn sold it to Toshiba in 2006 and it still operates to this day as Westinghouse Electric Company.

CBS also created a new subsidiary to manage the Westinghouse brand. What “managing” means in this case is licensing.

The famous mark, designed by Paul Rand in 1960, along with the Westinghouse name and the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse” has been licensed to a ragbag of small companies hoping to be raised from obscurity by use of the famous brand.

There’s Angelo Brothers, for example, a Philadelphia lighting company. In 2003 Angelo Brothers changed its name to Westinghouse Lighting Corporation under a licensing deal.

“We’re proud to be part of the Westinghouse family and to market products under one of the most powerful and trustworthy brands of our time”, said Stanley Angelo, who now rejoices in the title of Chairman and CEO of Westinghouse Lighting Corporation. While convenient for the Angelo brothers the arrangement has understandably given rise to comical confusion with people calling a nuclear power company for Christmas tree light bulb replacements.

And then there’s Westinghouse Digital of Orange, California that markets LCD televisions and other flat-panel display products. of reportedly variable quality that are made in Taiwan.

Westinghouse Lighting: Borrowed brand heritage.

One of the most recent conversions to Westinghouse is Akeena Solar, an installer and manufacturer of modular solar panels. Akeena Solar is now Westinghouse Solar. It too is free to use the Circle W logo, the slogan “You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse”.

Akeena Solar astutely observed: “ as solar purchasers move from early adapters to mainstream consumers, a lack of brand recognition will discourage buyers”.

Idea! Why bother building a brand when you can rent one? Akeena Solar now drapes itself in the borrowed trust and heritage and reputation of a brand that took another company a century to build.

The odd thing about all this is that Westinghouse as a brand is out of its time. While it is not dead, neither is it alive. It connects to a bygone era for those who remember it; for those who don’t it is a museum piece, a brand in formaldehyde. It is an undead brand.

In fact, it has become the antithesis of a brand: it guarantees nothing. From product to product there are no quality standards actively maintained by a parent company. Whatever it delivers, it is not the Westinghouse brand promise it wants you to think it is.

It’s an empty promise, a mocking contradiction of its own slogan: If it’s Westinghouse…you can’t be sure.

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