What it was: With origins dating to 1886, Westinghouse was one of the greatest American conglomerates–Pepsi to General Electric’s Coke. Among its dizzying array of businesses: electrical equipment, nuclear power plant equipment, aircraft engines, air conditioning, elevators, refrigerators and other appliances, gas turbines, locomotives, and robots. In 1995, however, it bought CBS, changed its name to CBS Corporation, and began to sell off its non-broadcasting businesses.
What it became: Bits and pieces of Westinghouse still exist–if you need to build a nuclear plant, you might want to give it a call, and there are still White-Westinghouse appliances. But Westinghouse is now primarily a shell company that licenses its name out to other manufacturers who want a familiar-sounding nameplate for their products. You can buy Westinghouse TVs and monitors, doorbells, light bulbs, and photo frames. But there is no real “Westinghouse”–the once-mighty behemoth of American commerce is now just a logo for rent.
What it was: AltaVista was the first blockbuster search engine–a a remarkable piece of technology that began as a Digital Equipment Corporation research project and became the Google of its era. In fact, when Google came along the easiest way to explain it was to say that it was like AltaVista, only even better.
What it became: When brands get sold, they usually get damaged in the process. AltaVista had five owners in five years: Digital (1995-1998), Compaq (1998-1999), CMGI (1999-2003), Overture (2003), and Yahoo (2003-present). It grew less relevant with each change of hands; if you weren’t aware it’s still with us today, I’m not surprised. But here it is.
The About AltaVista page boasts that it’s “a leading provider of search services and technology” and that it “continues to advance Internet search with new technologies and features designed to improve the search experience for consumers.” As far as I can tell, though, AltaVista results are slightly rehashed variants of what Yahoo gives you for the same queries. Using it is like visiting an old friend who’s been lobotomized.
What it was: A telephone service company founded by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, in 1875. It went on to become synonymous with phones and phone service in the United States–and was broken up into a long-distance company and separate “Baby Bell” local-service companies as the result of a 1982 agreement after it was sued under U.S. antitrust law.
What it became: AT&T is the current name of the former SBC, the telecommunications giant which ended up owning half of the Baby Bells. It adopted the brand when it acquired AT&T in 2005. I thought it was an odd name change at the time, since the name AT&T brings to mind associations of the telephone’s old, monopolistic, land-line past, not its high-speed wireless future. The name may be venerable, but it doesn’t evoke warm and fuzzy feelings: I can’t prove it, but my gut tells me that the company’s current subpar reputation–among iPhone owners, at least–is at least slightly crummier than it would have been if it had kept the SBC moniker.
But AT&T is also on this list–despite still being attached to one of the largest and most successful companies in America–because its current use underscores the completely ephemeral nature of branding in the telecommunications industry. “AT&T” may have been around as a name for 135 years, but it’s nothing more than three letters and an ampersand. That was proven when hundreds of AT&T Wireless stores expensively rebranded themselves as Cingular stores when Cingular bought AT&T’s wireless arm…and then expensively re-rebranded themselves as AT&T less than three years later.
Then there’s the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark. It’s sported three different names in the past six years: Pacific Bell Park, SBC Park, and now AT&T Park. One more merger, and it may end up as Verizon Park, Comcast Park, or Google Park.