Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World's Most Iconic Brand Names
Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names

Larry Holzwarth - March 10, 2022

Brand names are strange things. Some, over time, become a descriptive of the product itself, as when a person asks for a Kleenex when they mean a tissue. The plastic bandage for a minor wound is often called a bandaid, itself at brand name trademarked by Johnson and Johnson. Nobody ever asks for a Curad when they need a bandage. Some brand names become associated, however unjustly, with controversy. Others have links to the past which were, and in some cases are, controversial. The goal of all brand names is the same. A vendor wants his product or business so well-known to the public that the mention of the name is forever linked with what they sell. As public sentiments change over time, the name’s impact on the public changes as well.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
A 1903 newspaper advertisement for Eskimo Pie, one famous brand name which is no longer to be. Wikimedia

Some fabled sports teams’ names, which are brand names as well, are disappearing, under pressure from various advocates. For example, in 2022 the former Cleveland Indians will play under the new name of the Cleveland Guardians. Millions of products labeled with nicknames known to refer to the Indians, such as The Tribe, and the Wahoos, along with depictions of Chief Wahoo, were instantly orphaned. Other brand names succumbed to changing views about what constitutes racism, such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Eskimo Pie, and the Washington Redskins. Presumably, few giants exist to protest the stereotypical depiction of them as jolly and green. Anyway, here are the histories of some storied brand names, and how they came to be.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Mountain Dew was born as a mixer for alcoholic beverages and named for illicit whiskey. Etsy

1. The soft drink named for illicit whiskey

During Prohibition, bootleggers and organized crime figures obtained their illicit liquor from numerous sources. Some they simply manufactured in hidden facilities. Some they smuggled in from Canada, Europe, Cuba, and Mexico. In the eastern United States, they purchased it from distillers in the Appalachian hills and valleys, where moonshiners have distilled whiskey since the earliest days of the Republic. They called the whiskey by several names, including moonshine, white lightning, and mountain dew, Not being barrel-aged, mountain dew gained the reputation of being a harsh beverage, far from a smooth sipping whiskey. It required mixers to make it palatable, for any but the most dedicated whiskey drinker. The relative harshness of American whiskeys continued for decades after repeal of Prohibition, and Americans often took their whiskey with mixers. Such was the case with two bottlers in Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1930s.

Ally and Barney Hartman found it difficult to obtain their preferred mixer in Eastern Tennessee and decided to create their own. Their concoction originally appeared locally in the late 1940s. In 1961 Virginia’s Tip Corporation bought the rights to the beverage and its name – Mountain Dew – and launched it nationally. Its advertising featured a stereotyped “hillbilly”, complete with shooting iron and jug. Highly caffeinated, and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, Mountain Dew became extremely popular, particularly in its birthland of the South. Owned by Pepsico since the mid-1960s, Mountain Dew eventually expanded to a variety of flavors and related beverages. Originally developed as a mixer for alcoholic beverages, and named for illegal whiskey, it remains highly popular, especially among the young.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Hidden stills like this one in West Virginia have a direct link to the brand name NASCAR. Wikimedia

2. A major American sport is linked with Prohibition and moonshine as well

As noted, illicit distilling in America is as old as the nation itself. So are government efforts to suppress the practice. One of the first crises faced by the federal government under the Constitution was an insurrection by Pennsylvania distillers over taxes on their whiskey. The Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s began a continuing battle between illicit distillers and the government’s attempts to confiscate their untaxed products. By Prohibition, specially modified automobiles were used to deliver moonshine to customers. The cars were modified to increase power, speed, handling, and carrying capacity. Their drivers called the practice “runnin’ shine” and before long bragging rights led to them racing each other, usually in the South. Moonshine retained its popularity post-Prohibition in many of the Southern states, where dry counties continued to ban liquor for decades.

In 1948, after extended talks with drivers, track owners, promoters, and potential sponsors, Bill France Sr. announced the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Racing which uses the brand name NASCAR. Many of the more successful early drivers were moonshine runners. Then and now, throughout NASCAR’s history, very little of the vehicles involved was stock. Modifications for performance and safety have always been part of its program. Even in its “Strictly Stock” series of the late 1940s, drivers modified their cars, often using old bootlegging techniques, to gain an edge over their rivals’ drivers, rather than the revenuers. NASCAR’s direct links to illegal moonshining and its distribution are well known and even exploited from time to time. It is also deeply enmeshed with the aforementioned Mountain Dew, two famed American brand names born out of criminal activities.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Links to the racist Story of Little Black Sambo brought an end to the Sambo’s restaurant chain in the 1980s. Wikimedia

3. The restaurant chain with the unfortunate name

In 1957, entrepreneurs Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett opened a restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. They named their establishment by creating a portmanteau of their own names, Sam and Bo. The new restaurant became Sambo’s. As they expanded through franchising, the restaurant’s name caused it to be linked to a popular children’s book of the time, The Story of Little Black Sambo. In the story, a young Indian boy avoids being eaten by tigers by giving them his clothes and an umbrella. The vain tigers argue over which is more resplendent, and they chase each other around a tree until they melt themselves into ghee. Ghee is a clarified butter and a staple of Indian cuisine. Sambo’s mother uses the ghee to make pancakes. The restauranteurs exploited the association with décor in the restaurants depicting the story and characters in the book.

By the 1970s, the book and the restaurant were under considerable protest over the racial overtones depicted in each. Sambo came to be considered a pejorative for Black males. Though the company had grown to over 1100 restaurants, its financial situation was poor. Protests and boycotts by activists over its name simply added to the financial pressure. Attempts to change both its name and the appearance of its restaurants were of no avail. Bankruptcy came in 1981. Some of the stores became Denny’s. Others became Baker’s Square restaurants. The last Sambo’s, the original restaurant in Santa Barbara, continued to operate under that name until 2020. Pressure by activists that summer led to a change, and the brand name Sambo’s vanished from the American landscape. The Story of Little Black Sambo, including numerous revisions, name changes, and criticism, remains available, though many American stores refuse to carry it.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Heroin and Aspirin were both once brand names registered by Bayer. Wikimedia

4. The drug which was once a brand name

Although other chemists had synthesized diamorphine 1870s, it took those working for the German drug giant Bayer to find a market for the drug. Felix Hoffman, working for Bayer two decades later, was attempting to produce codeine from morphine when he synthesized diacetylmorphine. The new drug was up to twice as potent as morphine itself. Bayer’s researchers named the new drug and trademarked the name as Heroin. In 1895 they began marketing Heroin aggressively in Europe and in the United States. They claimed the new product was non-addictive and could thus be used as an alternative to morphine to control pain. They also touted its superiority as a cough syrup. For several years the drug was available in the United States without a prescription, and Bayer advertised it in catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and in store displays.

Changes to American law made Heroin available only by prescription in 1914’s Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. In 1924, the United States banned it completely. By then the trademark Heroin was no longer held by Bayer. The German company lost it, along with several other trademarks and brand names, under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War. Until the imposition of that treaty, Aspirin was another brand name for a drug developed and marketed by Bayer. Heroin as a brand name was relatively short-lived, but as a societal issue, it has remained problematic for over a century. Bayer’s claims of its non-addictive properties were long ago proved false, and heroin and other opioid addictions claim thousands of lives each year. Under US federal law, it can be possessed only by those with a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) license.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
A 1910 advertisement for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, bearing the “signature” of W. K. Kellogg. Wikimedia

5. The cereal intended to reduce the libido

John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist, advocated a vegetarian diet, daily exercise, total avoidance of the sins of alcohol and tobacco, and the reduction of sexual stimulation. In his view, a bland diet was essential to those worthy goals. As Chief Medical Officer of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, he operated an experimental kitchen. There, numerous new recipes and foods were developed by sanitarium staff. Among them were Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes. Kellogg disagreed with his brother, Will Keith (W. K.) Kellogg over marketing the cereal. W. K. obtained the rights to the product, opened the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, and later changed the name to Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909.

W. K. was not as open-minded as his brother. When John allowed a visitor, C. W. Post, observe the manufacture of corn flakes, Post left to start his own company, which eventually became General Foods. The brothers also argued over the addition of sugar to the product. John wanted the cereal to decrease stimulation and believed sugar to do the opposite. W. K. Kellogg’s company became international in his lifetime. Kellogg’s as a brand name arose from the dispute between two brothers. Today it is among the most recognizable brands in the world, and also owns other famous brands including Pringles, Eggo, and Nutri-grain, among many others. Through subsidiaries, the company markets yogurt. That’s singularly appropriate since John Harvey Kellogg advocated the consumption of a pint of yogurt following a water enema. A half-pint was to be taken orally, followed by a half-pint via yet another enema.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (in back standing between two women) and other notables at the 1939 unveiling of a Volkswagen prototype. Bundesarchiv

6. The people’s car in pre-World War II Germany

It is a widespread myth that Adolf Hitler’s leadership led to the construction of the German Autobahn. Construction of the highways began in the 1920s during the Weimar Republic. Nor were they intended to be used primarily by the military, the Wehrmacht moved men and materials long distances by train. But the Nazi leadership enthusiastically endorsed construction when they came to power in 1933. Hitler envisioned the new highways allowing German citizens to move about freely, for work and for leisure. To do that a new automobile was needed. Hitler wanted a car which was simple, low maintenance, and affordable, much like Henry Ford’s (whom Hitler greatly admired) Model T had been. He directed Ferdinand Porsche to develop such a car, and the automotive engineer and pioneer went to work. It was der Fuhrer who insisted the car be air-cooled, and that it could transport two adults and three children at autobahn speeds.

Porsche complied. Numerous pre-production models appeared before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In 1938 a factory and a supporting factory town were built to produce Volkswagens. About 200 or so of the cars were built before the war began and the factory shifted to wartime production for the Wehrmacht. Post-war, with primarily British support, the factory returned to production of the Volkswagen (People’s Car) Beetle. Production for civilian consumption resumed in 1947. By 1972, the Volkswagen Beetle was arguably the most easily recognizable automobile in the world. It could carry two adults and three children (if they were small), was air-cooled, affordable to purchase and simple to maintain. Volkswagen became one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers, and one of the most well-known brand names. In the 1960s their advertising earned numerous awards through poking fun at themselves and the seemingly ubiquitous Beetle.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
An early Coca-Cola advertisement toutings its effects against fatigue. Wikimedia

7. The tonic which became a well-known carbonated soft drink around the world

John Stith Pemberton created a tonic in the 1860s. He used a wine extracted from coca leaves, kola nuts, and other ingredients to concoct a tonic which included alcohol, caffeine, and cocaine. That it served as a stimulant is unsurprising. Pemberton called the tonic Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. According to Pemberton the tonic cured headache, stomach ache, fatigue, constipation, morphine addiction and several other ailments. He sold the tonic through his drugstore and mail order. Among his customers was former US President Ulysses S. Grant, who used it to treat his terminal throat cancer in the 1880s. In 1886, the Temperance movement succeeded in gaining legislation banning alcohol in Fulton County, Georgia, which included Atlanta. Pemberton was forced to remove the alcohol from his tonic. He needed to find a way to adapt to the new law while retaining his tonic’s wondrous powers.

The introduction of carbonated water to the tonic’s base preparation was an accident and changed Pemberton’s marketing plan. The new product, still containing cocaine and caffeine, became a beverage sold at soda fountains. A partner, Frank Mason Robinson, dubbed the new syrup Coca-Cola. Cocaine remained an ingredient in the beverage until the early 20th century. After its removal, extract of coca leaves remained a flavoring ingredient. Robinson developed the early advertising for the product, and the famed cursive logo was based on Pemberton writing the name in his own hand. Coca-Cola took advantage of the steadily growing dry faction in the United States, and marketed itself as a temperance drink, even while it continued to contain cocaine. Its famed logos, both Coca-Cola and Coke, are routinely listed as among the most well-known in the world.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The German shoe manufacturing magnate Rudolf Dassler. Puma

8. Two brothers created competing shoe companies because they couldn’t stand each other

The brothers Dassler, Rudolf and Adolph, sons of a shoemaker, started a shoe manufacturing company in Weimar Germany in 1924. They manufactured primarily sports shoes. In 1936 the brothers persuaded American sprinter Jesse Owens to wear their shoes at the Munich Olympics. Owens won four Gold Medals in their shoes. Both brothers joined the Nazi Party and following their successful Olympics foray their business boomed. Then World War II came. Manufacturing sports shoes was not a wartime industry. Demand plummeted. Problems between the brothers were exacerbated by wartime demands. Adolph, who was known as Adi, did not get along with his brother’s wife, and neither of their wives were particularly fond of each other. After the war ended, the brothers attempted to restore their business, located in the town of Herzogenaurach, about twelve miles from Nuremberg.

Their attempt failed. Rudolf had been arrested by the Americans late in the war, and accused of being a member of the Waffen SS. He was convinced his brother, Adi, had denounced him to the Allies. Rudolf was released after Adi appeared before a denazification panel convened by the Americans. During his appearances, Rudolf informed the panel that his brother had led the effort to convert the shoe factory to the manufacture of anti-tank weapons during the war. The rifts between the brothers also divided their extended family, and by late 1947 were totally irreconcilable. In early 1947 the shoe factory, which had been confiscated by the Allies, was returned to Adi’s control and he was allowed to resume management of the company. Enraged, Rudolf moved across the Aurach River, where the shoe firm had a second factory. Both brothers started new companies in their respective factories.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Adolf “Adi” Dassler displaying the famed three stripes of his company’s logo. Fox Business

9. Adolph Dassler used his name for his new company

Adolph Dassler selected his nickname – Adi – and the first three letters of his last name to christen his new shoe company Adidas. He hit upon the idea of coloring the reinforcing straps of the sides of the shoes in a different shade than the rest of the shoe. In March 1949, he trademarked the three-stripe logo. Adi concentrated his efforts on the development of football boots in rapidly rebuilding Europe. His Adidas company developed the innovation of screw-in spikes for his boots, allowing players to gain superior traction on muddy pitches. Adidas provided spikes of varying lengths, giving the wearer the ability to decide which were most suitable for prevailing conditions. The spikes also prevented mud from building up on and around the sole. Muddy boots were heavier and more fatiguing for the wearer. Exposure on the football fields and the three-stripe logo gave Adidas favorable publicity.

The company grew rapidly. In 1952, Adidas settled a dispute with a Finnish company which had a similar three-stripe logo. Adidas claimed they had invented it, though the Finnish company, Karhu Sports, produced pairs of shoes from the 1940s which preceded Adidas’ use of the logo. To settle the issue, Adidas purchased the logo for two bottles of whiskey and cash. Meanwhile, a bitter rivalry emerged with the shoe factory across the river, operated by Rudolf. Both brothers paid athletes to wear their shoes, at football matches, track and field meets, and other sporting events. In the 1960 Summer Olympics, Armin Hary won the Gold Medal for the 100 meters. Before stepping on the podium, he changed his shoes from the pair he wore for the race to a pair of Adidas, hoping to be paid for endorsing them. Adi refused payment.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The Puma logo displaying at the company’s headquarters in Germany. Puma

10. Rudolf Dassler used an animal for his company name and logo

Across the Aurach River, Rudolf used his share of the former Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory to start his own company. He initially named it Ruda, using the first two letters of his first and last names. His intent was to dethrone his younger brother as the leading provider of shoes to European footballers and track and field athletes. In 1948 Rudolf changed the name of his new company, calling it Puma Schuhfabrik Rudolf Dassler. For a logo, he selected a leaping puma (Quechua for cougar) and for his shoe markings, he selected a square, with a large cat in a leaping pose and the letter D. The well-known strip along the side of the shoe did not appear until 1958. By then, Adi and Rudolf had carried their rivalry, and their feud, to dimensions well known in rebuilding West Germany, and the rest of Europe.

Since Adidas and Puma both manufactured their shoes in the same town, it soon became a divisive issue among its citizens. Herzogenaurach adopted the nickname, “the town of bent necks”, as people looked down to see which brand of shoes others wore. During Rudolf’s lifetime, Puma remained a small, regional company, with his focus on beating his brother in competitions, rather than on bottom line. After his death, his sons Gerd and Armin ran the company until 1989, and it was they who moved it into multinational corporation manufacturing shoes, clothing, sportswear, accessories, and sports equipment. The bitter rivalry between two brothers, who never reconciled, created not one but two of the largest sports-oriented companies in the world. Both are still headquartered in Herzogenaurach, Germany, though both have other manufacturing facilities at sites around the world.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Volvo headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo Cars

11. The ball bearing manufacturer which became a major automobile company

Svenska Kullagerfabriken, which is Swedish for Swedish Ball Bearing Factory, was founded in 1907 in Gothenburg. During the industrial revolution ball bearings were a critical component in machinery of all types, and the company, which operated under the name SKF, became one of the largest manufacturers of ball bearings, as well as seals and lubrication components. In 1911, SKF trademarked the name Volvo, intending to use it on their ball bearings. The decision was appropriate. Volvo is a conjugation of the Latin verb volvere, and translates to English as “I roll”. The decision to use it for bearings was later overturned. SKF continued to identify their bearings and other products with their initials rather than the new name, though they retained its trademark. Then in 1924, an SKF sales executive named Assar Gabrielsson decided to develop an automobile.

Cars from less rigorous climates encountered difficulties operating in the harsh Swedish winter. With the support of his employer, Gabrielsson built and tested several prototypes. In 1927 the first production car designated an OV 4 and bearing the name Volvo appeared. OV stood for Oppen Vagn, meaning open carriage, and the 4 indicated it was equipped with a 4 cylinder engine. An open car may not seem wise given the temperatures of a Swedish winter, but the car was soon supported with a closed version, the PV 4. Gabrielsson and his partners selected the already trademarked name because SKF already owned it, and “I roll” supported their shared belief the car could operate successfully regardless of weather and road conditions. Volvo is by no means the only automobile company to use Latin for its name. Audi is derived from audire, Latin for “to listen”.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
American Budweiser and its Czech counterpart side by side. Dorisall via Wikipedia

12. The American beer which borrowed its brand name

In 1876, St. Louis brewer Adolphus Busch created a new beer in his brewery. Styling it a Bohemian-style lager, Busch named the new beverage Budweiser. Over the years it came to be called the King of Beers by its brewer and their advertisers. At that time, Budweis was the Germanized name of a town in Bohemia, now located in the Czech Republic. Budweiser itself means “of Budweis”. Adolphus Busch marketed the beer aggressively, and the company still does. But there is a problem with the brand name, which is one of America’s most iconic. Since the 13th century, a beer name Budweiser has been brewed in the Pilsen region of Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. Adolphus Busch appropriated the name. He didn’t stop there. The Bohemian version of Budweiser was called the Beer of Kings, since the 1600s. Busch’s trespass there is self-evident.

Those who taste both beers will find they have little in common, other than the shared name. Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic, the original owner of the name Budweiser has called their beer by the Czech translation. The Budweiser Budwar, the 4th largest brewery in the Czech Republic, and Anheuser-Busch have engaged in trademark disputes since the early 20th century. As of 2010, Anheuser-Busch can only use the abbreviation Bud when selling its Budweiser products in the European Union. The Czech version is sold in North America, Brazil, and other nations to which it is exported as Czechvar. It is also sold under that name in the Philippines. Sales of the Czech brewery’s products have expanded steadily in the past thirty years, Budweiser’s have declined.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
A 1925 magazine advertisement in which Betty Crocker endorses Gold Medal flour. Wikimedia

13. The brand name created from a fictional housewife

In 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Company (later one of the founding companies of General Mills) held a contest in the Saturday Evening Post. They were seeking a character to use when addressing questions or concerns regarding their products. A fictional American housewife and cooking expert was the result. She was given the last name Crocker, borrowed from Washburn-Crosby executive William Crocker. Her first name, Betty, came from the belief of the all-male executives of the firm that it sounded like the all-American girl next door. By 1924 Betty had a radio program, The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air, voiced by actress Marjorie Husted. Betty’s image, created in 1921, adapted over the years to reflect changing American values and images of women. Several actresses and radio personalities provided her voice over the ensuing decades.

Betty moved to television in 1949, appearing on programs hosted by other celebrities, including George and Gracie Burns. She eventually acquired her own program, the Betty Crocker Star Matinee, portrayed by Adelaide Hawley. Fortune Magazine named her the second most popular woman in America in 1945, following Eleanor Roosevelt. Later that same year Fortune identified her as a fraud. Evidently, they had believed she was real. Hawley also portrayed Betty Crocker in the first color commercial ever aired by CBS, during which she baked a cake. In the 20th century, she became bilingual, with her many cookbooks appearing in Spanish, and directions on her product labels provided in Spanish and English. General Mills commissioned an official portrait for Betty in 1936, and updated it numerous times in the years since. She was not a real person, nor even based on one, though people still question General Mills over her true identity in the 21st century.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Sunshine Biscuit’s Hydrox cookies inspired today’s most popular cookie, Oreo. Wikimedia

14. The imitation cookie which became number one

In 1912, executives of the National Biscuit Company had a problem. Rival Sunshine Biscuit dominated the market with a chocolate sandwich cookie, two wafers filled with crème, which they called Hydrox. Bakers and chemists got to work, and in March they introduced a new cookie which was clearly an imitation of Hydrox. National Biscuit (which later became Nabisco) called their new cookie the Oreo Biscuit. The source of the name Oreo is uncertain, and many theories abound, including it was derived from Latin, from French, or from an abbreviation for appetite stimulants. Orexigenics stimulate the appetite and could be a cause for reaching for one Oreo after the other, a fairly common practice. Though Hydrox supporters claim their cookie was both creamier in its filling and crunchier in its cookies, Oreo gradually took over.

As of 2021, Oreo branded cookies are the number one cookie, in terms of sales, in the world. They can be found on store shelves in over 100 countries. They are produced by several different companies; Nabisco in the United States, Cadbury in the United Kingdom, and others around the world. Born as an imitation, Oreo has led to its own imitators, including Newman-Os, the Finnish Domino, and brand names operated by various grocery chains. For those interested, the basic Oreo cookie contains about 45 calories, more or less. For variations, the calorie count varies, but there is no such thing as diet Oreos. Oreo Thins, smaller versions of the original, are made from the same recipe. Hydrox, the original chocolate sandwich cookie, have been in and out of production, and as of this writing can be found in limited locations in the United States.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The Back to the Future film trilogy gave the failed DeLorean brand name a new lease on life. IMDb

15. The car brand brought down by a drug sting

John DeLorean was an experienced automotive engineer well-backed with capital when he started the DeLorean Motor Company in 1975. He envisioned a high-performance, stainless-steel-bodied automobile, but first he needed a place to produce it. With significant financial support from the British government, as well as numerous celebrities and American investors, DeLorean built a factory to produce his cars near Belfast, Northern Ireland. Production began in 1981, two years behind schedule and significantly over budget. The car did not sell well. Concerns over quality of finish, a lack of performance, higher than expected costs, and lack of dealer support kept sales well below the break-even point. Then consumers learned the company’s founder, John DeLorean, was the target of a sting operation. The FBI, the DEA, and the British government all presented evidence DeLorean planned to smuggle $24 million in cocaine into the United States.

Despite videotaped evidence clearly depicting DeLorean discussing the deal with undercover agents, he was acquitted. His attorneys demonstrated entrapment. DeLorean later blamed the entrapment for the collapse of his company, though in fact, the company was already hopelessly in debt, and there was no demand for his products. If not for the exposure in the Back to the Future film trilogy, the DeLorean would be all but forgotten today. Various automotive enthusiasts have tried to elevate interest in the brand with little success. Of the estimated 9,000 cars built in the early 1980s, about 6,500 are believed to still be drivable, and several support groups have evolved around it in the United States. Michael J, Fox’s films restored the vehicle’s panache, but to date, nothing has restored what DeLorean once claimed as demand for his car. John DeLorean died in 2005, still believing in the potential success of DeLorean Motors.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The Ronco brand name gained prominence through extensive television exposure via infomercials. Associated Press

16. The product shill who created a brand name

Ron Popeil initially worked as a salesman and presenter of products invented by his father, Samuel Popeil. In 1964 he founded Ronco, a brand which quickly became known through the use of infomercials. Ronco brought consumers such products as the Veg-O-Matic, the Chop-O-Matic, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman (“biggest fishing invention since the hook”), and the inspired Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler. Mr. Microphone, which allowed the user to hear him or herself over a nearby radio encouraged potential singing careers. For those losing their hair, Ronco offered GLH 9 (Great Looking Hair formula #9). Bald spots and thinning hair were replaced by the promised Great Looking Hair, applied from an aerosol can. Popeil became an early target of comedians poking fun at his selling style, including Johnny Carson and Dan Aykroyd. The latter demonstrated the Bass-O-Matic, whirling a whole fish in a blender to produce a beverage, on Saturday Night Live.

To be fair, some Ronco products lived up to their promise, including the Showtime Rotisserie Oven (“set it and forget it”) and its variations. But most never overcame the carnival sideshow reputation they gained through the infomercials. Some were simply cheesy. The Egg Scrambler was simply a needle which penetrated the shell and whipped around, powered by batteries. The Dial-O-Matic, offered to complement the Veg-O-Matic, was a reconfigured kitchen mandolin. Ron Popeil died in July 2021, having seen his company, Ronco, enter bankruptcy and liquidate three years earlier. But wait…there’s more. Ronco continues to maintain an online presence after having been acquired by HD Schulman International Trading. Some of the original products are thus still available, and most of the infomercials can be viewed online.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Three different models built by Willys Overland during World War II, known to the US Army as “jeeps”. US Army

17. The military vehicle which launched a major corporation

In the late 1930s, the US Army needed a new vehicle for transportation and reconnaissance. They specified the vehicle should be four-wheel drive, inexpensive to purchase and maintain, able to reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. The Army also demanded a working prototype in just seven weeks. Detroit’s Bantam Car Company complied. In reward, the Army gave the Bantam plans to both Ford and Toledo, Ohio’s Willys-Overland, believing Bantam incapable of meeting demand for the new vehicle. Bantam later manufactured a small number of the vehicles, most of which went to Britain under Lend-Lease. The Bantam design, with minimal alterations (the famed grill design came from Ford), became the near legendary Jeep. Jeep later became a major brand name in SUVs and off-road vehicles. But the origin of its name, usually attributed to a slurring of the initials G-P, for General Purpose vehicle, is inaccurate.

During the First World War, both vehicles and new recruits were referred to as jeeps. And while the Army did designate the car as a GPW, G referred to Government, P to wheelbase, and W to Willys, its engine manufacturer. The Army Air Corps, and later Air Forces, referred to the Link Trainer simulator as a jeep. The US Navy’s escort carriers of World War II were called “jeep carriers” by the men who crewed them. By World War II the term jeep referred to small vehicles, small aircraft, gadgets, and any other equipment the GIs chose to honor with it. Willys-Overland tried to trademark the name for its Bantam-designed car in 1943, though Bantam disputed it and several years of legal battles ensued. In 1945 Willys produced the first civilian jeep, designating it the Willys CJ (Civilian Jeep). Willys finally acquired the trademark “Jeep” in 1950.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
Silly Putty was born out of the need to find rubber substitutes during World War II. Pinterest

18. The rubber substitute which became an internationally beloved toy

In 1941 and 1942, the Japanese Army and Navy overran Southeast Asia, and the Dutch and British Pacific possessions which produced most of the world’s rubber. In the United States, shortages of rubber made tires the first consumer product subject to rationing. Gasoline was also rationed, not because of a shortage of petroleum, but instead as a means to preserve tires. Research into synthetic substitutes for natural rubber intensified during the war. Researchers at two American companies, Dow Corning and General Electric, independently discovered a mixture of silicone oil and boric acid which produced a compound with some, but unfortunately not all, of the characteristics of rubber. It could stretch, bounce, and resist heat. But it could not harden to the point it could be used as a seal or as tires. Still, researchers explored other uses for the product during the war years and immediately followed its conclusion.

In 1949 a toy seller and a marketing consultant, Ruth Fallgatter and Peter Hodgson respectively, began selling the compound. When Fallgatter gave up on the product, Hodgson bought the production rights from General Electric, He named the compound Silly Putty, packed it in plastic eggs, and promoted it heavily during the Easter season in 1950. In August a reporter for The New Yorker magazine discovered Silly Putty in a bookstore. His article describing Silly Putty and the amusements it offered caused sales to skyrocket. In 1961 Silly Putty was introduced in the Soviet Union, where it became a huge hit. Primarily sold as a toy, the compound has other uses. Apollo astronauts used it to hold tools in place while in zero-gravity. Therapists use it to help patients recover from hand injuries. In the 21st century, it is still marketed as a toy, usually packed in a plastic egg.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The registered brand name BAND-AID proved so successful it became genericized in the 1960s. Wikimedia

19. An inept cook led to the invention of the adhesive bandage

Earle Dickson was newly married in 1920. His wife, Josephine, exhibited enthusiasm for her new duties as a housewife, but in the kitchen demonstrated a certain lack of… aptitude. Earle often came home to find his dinner prepared, but his wife bearing a new cut, or scrape, or burn, as a result of her efforts. What was worse was Josephine often experienced difficulties bandaging the wound, being alone at the time. Earle, while presumably expressing sympathy to his bride for her difficulties, decided to at least help her solve the problem of covering the wounds. He took adhesive tape and affixed cotton pads at intervals, covered the pads with crinoline, and cut them into ready-made bandages. When they proved successful as Josephine needed them, Earle decided to take the idea to his employer. Earle worked for Johnson & Johnson in Highland Park, New Jersey.

Johnson & Johnson developed the idea of adhesive bandages, and marketed them under the trademark BAND-AID. Other companies followed in the marketing of adhesive bandages, until scores, even hundreds of companies sold them under various names. But they became known almost universally as bandaids, an example of a trademark becoming genericized. Other examples include Kleenex for a facial tissue or Xerox for a photocopy. Earle Dickson eventually rose to a Vice President position with Johnson & Johnson. He retired in 1957. By then, over 1.5 billion adhesive bandages were sold annually. In 1951 Johnson & Johnson introduced decorated bandages. Since then, Johnson & Johnson alone has sold over 100 billion adhesive bandages of all types under the BAND-AID trademark, inspired by a young housewife with an unfortunate tendency to hurt herself in her kitchen.

Dark and Surprising Origins of Some of the World’s Most Iconic Brand Names
The first airplane operated by Qantas, with the name of the airline spelled out on its tail. Wikimedia

20. The airline name that appears to be misspelled

In the English language, when a word begins with the letter Q it is almost invariably followed by the letter U. There are a few exceptions, all of them having entered limited English usage from Asian or Middle Eastern cultures. Another notable exception is the brand name for the world’s third oldest airline, the flag carrier for Australia. Qantas began operations as a commercial air carrier in 1921. Though it is a frequently repeated myth the airline has never had a fatal accident, its safety record is nonetheless admirable. It has suffered no passenger fatalities in over 70 years as of this writing and has often been designated as the world’s safest airline. But what about that name? Why is their no U following the Q in the name of one of the symbols of Australia, where English is the dominant language?

Qantas, like many brand names, is an acronym. The original name of the airline which evolved into today’s Qantas was the Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Services. Using an acronym for a brand name is common. Some examples include 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing), CVS (Consumer Value Stores), M & M (Mars and Murrie), and Nerf (Non-expandable recreational foam). Before spam became a descriptive for frustrating email and text messages it was an acronym for Shoulder of Pork and Meat, under the brand name SPAM. And PAM cooking spray’s name is simply an acronym making a descriptive statement of its origins. It stands for Product of Arthur Meyerhoff.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Drinking in history: Mountain Dew bubbled up from humble Knoxville beginnings”. Doug Mason, Knoxville News. September 16, 2007.

“From moonshine to NASCAR”. Article, World of Speed. December 26, 2019. Online

“Little Black Sambo: A look at the bizarre history of Helen Bannerman’s racism-riddled children’s story”. Kuzhali Manickavel, First Post. June 11, 2019. Online

“History of Heroin”. Article, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. January 1, 1953. Online

“Dr. John Kellogg Invented Cereal. Some of His Other Wellness Ideas Were Much Weirder”. Greg Daugherty, History.com. August 7, 2019

“Hitler and his ‘Volkswagen’. Tracing the 80 year history of the Beetle”. Astrid Prange, Deutsches Welles. May 26, 2018

“History of Coca-Cola”. Article, Interexchange. Online

“Chronicle and biography of Adi and Kathe Dassler”. Article, Adi and Kathe Dassler Memorial Foundation. Online

“The Family Feud That Led To Multiple Billion Dollar Businesses”. Joseph Pompliano, Huddle Up. August 5, 2020

“Why is Volvo called Volvo?” Emma Roberts, Rewind and Capture. May 29, 2018

“The Other Bud. What to Know About the Budweiser Budvar Brewery”. Mark Stock, The Manual. November 13, 2019

“The Story of Betty Crocker”. Staff, Betty Crocker Kitchens. October 5, 2021. Online

“The Strange History of the Oreo and Hydrox Cookie Rivalry”. Traci Morin, Mashed. July 3, 2020.

“Bright future at old DeLorean plant in Belfast”. Francess McDonnell, Irish Times. October 20, 2015

“A brief history of Jeep: 75 years from Willys to Wrangler”. Larry P. Villequette, Automotive News. July 13, 2016

“A short history of the ball of goo called Silly Putty”. Jennifer Rosenberg, Thoughtco. January 31, 2019

“Our history”. Article, Qantas.com. Online

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