– Nancy Friedman, Wordworking
For much of the 20th century, the Shinola brand—introduced around 1907; first trademark filing, by the Shinola-Bixby Corporation of New Jersey, in 1929—was synonymous in the United States with shoe polish. Not even a famous World War II–era vulgarity could dim the shine on this stalwart trade name.
Corporal punishment in advertising: a 1948 Shinola ad .
Once-dominant Shinola faded away in the 1960s, and the trademarks associated with it expired in the 1980s. But now the Shinola name is getting a fresh polish from a new Detroit-based company that’s making classic-looking, high-priced watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals.
New York Times ad for the new Shinola. “The Birdy” is the name of the watch style.
The trademark’s current owner is Bedrock Brands, in Dallas, which was started by the founder of the accessories brand Fossil. In 2011, Bedrock decided to launch a new line of high-end leather accessories made in the U.S. “It would be a company steeped in the values of an older era, and the founding team wanted a name to match,” according to a November 2012 article in Fast Company’s Co.Design blog:
In Bedrock’s eyes, the new company would be a throwback to a time when goods were built to last, when customers weighed price points with quality, and, most importantly, when those customers had an interest in who was building the products—and where.
“We didn’t want to try to invent a name that had heritage and pretend there was history behind it,” COO Heath Carr says, so they looked for inactive brands that were on the market. They eventually came across Shinola, along with the “ever-so-famous saying that comes with the name,” Carr says.
Recycling an inactive trademark is a creative and rarely used naming strategy. In this case it works well—not because of any intrinsic meaning but because of everything “Shinola” suggests: history, American industry, and work that’s done by hand.
The recycled, reborn Shinola set up operations in late 2011 in Detroit’s Argonaut Building, a historical landmark that originally served as General Motors’ research laboratory. The watch factory and bicycle “workshop” are both located there; the name of one of the bicycle models, the Bixby, pays homage to the original Shinola company.
The story of an old-time American brand getting a new lease on life in one of America’s most depressed cities is a pretty good one. But it isn’t the whole Shinola story.
For one thing, “Shinola” didn’t simply disappear between the 1960s and 2011. Someone registered shinola.com in 1997 (the Shinola subsidiary of Bedrock Brands owns it now). And a search of the USPTO database reveals several unrelated “Shinola” trademarks, alive and dead, for a surprising range of products and services.
There’s a Shinola wine, for example, registered to Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona. (It’s a merlot-cabernet blend made from grapes grown in a vineyard called Merkin—an odd naming story of its own, no doubt.) There’s a Shinola music label established in Seattle in 1997. There’s a defunct graphic-design magazine called Shinola (trademark abandoned in 2004). A Connecticut company registered Shinola in 1996 for “dental cups and points used with a hand piece for polishing restorations”; the company abandoned the mark a year later.
The Bay Area branding agency A Hundred Monkeys registered Shinola for what appears to have been a one-time-only awards ceremony held sometime between 2001 and 2003. (I contacted A Hundred Monkeys for clarification but didn’t get a reply.)
And another Bay Area branding agency, Igor, bestowed the Shinola name on “a revolutionary new online ad software technology.” Here’s how Igor explained it:
The advertising-centric metaphor of shoe polish and putting a shine on a product provides additional layers of depth and consumer connectivity. Our client wanted a viral, self-propelling name that would minimize the need for an advertising and P.R. budget, and they got one.
Maybe a little P.R. would have helped: The trademark registration for advertising-centric Shinola was filed in September 2005 and abandoned in October 2006.
Shinola shone outside the trademark registry, too. In the first decade of the 2000s at least two bands, The Reducers and Ween, released CDs called “Shinola.” (Neither band recorded on the Shinola label.) Dolly Parton had a big hit with a 2008 single called “Shinola” (refrain: “You don’t know love from Shinola / With you love is not what I found”).
Why has “Shinola” proved so successful for so long? Partial credit goes to the -ola suffix, which for more than a century has been used to create the names of historic brands: Victrola, Pianola, Crayola, Mazola, Moviola, Granola. (Yes, Granola was originally trademarked in the U.S.) More recently and less felicitously, there’s a brassiere company called Brayola. (For additional 20th-century -olas, and for some speculation on the suffix’s meaning, see the Intertique article “Who Put the Ola in Victrola?”)
The shine component of Shinola also helps burnish the name, of course. But the real secret of Shinola’s enduring popularity may go back to that rude bit of barracks slang. If you know the difference between excrement and excellence, in other words, you’ll choose Shinola.
For more on Shinola brands old and new, see my recent blog post.