The rise and fall of fabled products – Retailing Africa


by Donovan Neale-May. With childhood brands, a walk down memory lane can be a little disappointing and somewhat distressing. Many brands just don’t age well. Cost-cutting measures, product mismanagement, shifting consumption patterns, the innovator’s dilemma, new owner subjugation, and a tendency to rest on one’s laurels, are just a few reasons why household brands fall from their lofty heights.

Honey, who shrunk the Romany Creams? One of my fondest memories of childhood treats was Romany Creams. Alas and alack, this enduring brand from Bakers (part of National Brands) in South Africa, no longer lives up to its brand promise and enticing package label. Like many products, the size, taste and texture has suffered from cost containment and margin pressures.

Food technologists have created processed offerings that are far from the original classics and certainly don’t live up to their claims of being made with the finest ingredients. Experts have labelled this “shrinkflation”, and you’ll be seeing more of it this year as food makers downsize and economise.

My mail order Romany Creams (consumed one month before the sell by date) had the skimpiest layer of chocolate and the coconut biscuit flavour was one only a canine might appreciate. Product degradation is a big issue and brands will pay the price for not adhering to enduring quality standards. No more Romany Creams for me!

And I’m not the only one. Check out social media chatter and conversational bush fires about fabled brands. In the opinion of many: Victoria’s Secret has lost its lustre in lingerie. Super Soakers no longer hits the mark. Girl Scout Cookies and Breyer’s Ice Cream are not the palate pleasers of old. Vicks VapoRub must recover its arresting eucalyptus hit. And toys in Happy Meals and Cracker Jacks are just a joke. Disillusioned consumers are not hesitant to dump or disconnect from brands that have lost their inherent value, taste, quality, allure, memorable essence or comfort.

Quality nostalgia

I asked the CMO Council team if they had experiences similar to mine. Our chief content officer, Tom Kaneshige, recalled his most prized possession in the early 1980s: a Sony Walkman 2. It cost around $150, and he mowed many lawns to get it. The small, silvery portable cassette player boasted the first-ever stereo sound — or so it seemed — and delivered a magical experience. Listening to music was like being at a private concert in your bedroom. It was simple and elegant with only four buttons (fast forward, rewind, play, stop) and a volume wheel.

What happened? Competition in the portable music player market heated up. Sony made the poor decision to compete on features, its products becoming ever more complicated. Simplicity in design didn’t return to the market until Steve Jobs took back Apple in 1997 and launched the iPod four years later. Today, Tom owns an assortment of electronic products — Samsung TV, Apple iPad, Bose headphones, etc; and only one Sony device – a portable digital recorder for interviewing marketing leaders. The recorder is a motley of confusing buttons and hidden features that he’ll never use, a sad reminder of how far Sony has fallen in this form factor.

Just for fun and with a hankering for the days of watching Sesame Street with my kids, I looked at product categories with the letter “B.” No lack of enduring brands in these market sectors! What great examples of applied innovation and brand ovation, when you look at bikes, boats, bats, balls, batteries, beds, bottles, barbecues, books (digital), banks, and boards (skate, snow, waterski, surf, etc.).

Product success

Loyalty, repeat purchase, word-of-mouth and strong affinity are key measures of product success and emotional brand attachment. Names that come to mind include, Brooks Brothers, Carhartt, Woolrich, Levi Strauss, Rawlings, Slazenger, Mitre, New Balance, Dickies, Sperry, O’Neill, Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, Triscuits, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Heinz, Tabasco, Cadbury, Colman’s Mustard, Twining’s Tea, and many more.

Food and beverage companies, particularly, have realised the evocative imagery and nostalgic association of craft, artisan and boutique branding to gain authenticity and consumer curiosity. No better examples than in the wine, cheese, beer, bread, pasta, and condiment sections.

A good number have grown or diversified their customer base by leveraging new ingredients, bioscience research, materials, designs, packaging, preparation, production, or organic cultivation practices to perfect products. Berry growers, most notably with Driscoll’s at the forefront, have leveraged plant science innovation, year-round growing, protective packaging, and derivative product development to stimulate demand and consumption.

To be fair, many classic brands have successfully adapted to changing times and continuously evolved. My hats off to all those brands that have stayed relevant, real, and tightly coupled with their customers’ changing tastes, preferences, and lifestyles over many decades.

For more: CMO Council


Donovan Neale-May is the founder and executive director of the CMO Council, the Growth Officer Council (; and the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network (, a global community of executive change agents driving business reinvention, IT transformation, and process improvement across the enterprise.


Main image credit: Unsplash.


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