Can Postum fans revive their beloved beverage?

Consumer campaigns hope to restore the decaf hot drink to store shelves; it's worked before, with other 'orphan' products.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Second shelf life: Many 'orphan' products like these were dropped by companies, only to return later due to consumer demand. Postum has no takers yet, though.
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    Gone: Postum, a roasted-grain drink introduced in 1895, was discontinued this winter by Kraft.
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When Robert Underwood, a Seattle electrician, ran out of Postum recently he scanned the shelves of his local grocery where he'd been buying his supply for the past 30 years. He couldn't find it. He asked some young clerks for help. They had no idea what he was talking about. So he went to another store. Same story. Frustrated, Mr. Underwood decided to e-mail Kraft. And that's when he found out that Kraft had decided to drop Postum. Just like that.

"Postum has become a regular part of my daily routine, I drink it daily," he wrote on kraftfoods.com, an online consumer forum. "Please let [management] know they have just alienated a lot of customers...."

The century-old instant powdered drink named for its creator, C.W. Post (of Post cereals fame), may not enjoy the brand recognition of drinks like Tang, but when Kraft kicked its caffeine-free hot drink to the curb this winter, Postum's loyal following took the news hard.

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Products abandoned by their makers, or "orphan brands," aren't uncommon. Even as companies work hard to establish emotional bonds between consumers and their goods, thousands of items quietly slip away each year if they don't turn a profit. But with the advent of online communication, consumers not quite ready to let go are showing their discontent by writing blogs, selling hoarded supplies at marked-up prices, and sharing recipes and tips. In some cases, if the consumer response is broad enough, a product can earn a second life.

"I feel as if a friend has died," posted George Seeley on one of many Postum online bulletins. "Some think Postum is a coffee substitute – but ironically there is no REAL substitute for Postum."

Susan Fournier, a marketing professor at Boston University says a similar uproar

happened in the late 1980s when Coca-Cola took the original Coke off the market and replaced it with New Coke. As soon as word hit the street, an organization called the Old Coke Drinkers of America popped up and fought back. Enthusiasts started driving across state lines to find stores still selling the original Coke. Some hoarded cans in their basements, while others turned a profit off their own stockpiles. The Old Coke Drinkers of America logged some 60,000 calls to the company's national headquarters, and eventually New Coke was pulled and the original Coke reinstated.

"[Coca-Cola's] management response was 'They'll get over it,' then they finally looked at each other and said, 'They're not getting over it,' " says Ms. Fournier. "What's strange is that after years of brand building and creating a familial dependency on a product, once the product does poorly, or the market changes, they pull it. Of course [consumers] are going to react strongly!"

Underwood was fueled into action after he discovered an online community of Postum drinkers mourning the demise of their favorite drink. After reading through a few online blogs and, unable to find a Postum alternative that didn't taste like a bad cup of cheap coffee, he decided to try to rally the disgruntled. In February, Underwood started a Yahoo! group for Postum drinkers, with the aim of bringing the product back.

"I find it very difficult to believe that with a product as good for you as Postum," he says referring to its low-sodium, low-calorie, and zero-caffeine appeal, "that there's not a market for it. Sure, it's chump change for Kraft, but a smaller company could buy the rights for it."

Fournier says that's exactly what could happen. For example, the Himmel Group, a brand marketer specializing in reviving discontinued brands, rescued Ovaltine, a hot malted drink, after its parent company gave it the boot in 1992. If a product's emotional value is still meaningful today, then there's a systematic way to bring it back and build volume and momentum, says CEO Jeffrey Himmel. Nestlé now markets Postum in the US.

Many market researchers believe that products follow a predictable cycle: Brands are introduced, they gain popularity, and then fade away. "It's still likely that someone will come along and pick ... up [Postum]," says Lam Tran, a researcher for the Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "These 'sleeper' brands are gold mines for private equity firms."

Meanwhile, since Kraft has stated it has no plans to put Postum back in stores, its fans are making do by snapping up jars selling for $35 and higher on eBay. Several industrious Postum drinkers have posted their own recipes for making Postum at home – a labor-intensive process that requires roasting for five to six hours and stirring every 20 minutes.

"You have to be a pretty desperate Postum drinker to go that far," says Underwood.

But some fans are willing. Susan Barron, a homemaker from Pennsylvania, made the Postum recipe posted on chow.com. The recipe took her more than five hours to make, but, she says, the taste is almost the same, and now she has two quarts sitting in her kitchen.

'Orphan' brands return

At different times, all these brands were widely recognized and enjoyed a loyal consumer base in the United States. But as interest in them waned, many were traded from company to company or simply dropped. While they all qualify as 'orphan' brands that have returned, the specifics of their stories are difficult to track. Some, like Comet cleanser, have been particularly successful in their revival. Others, like Quisp breakfast cereal, have been relegated to novelty stores or online sales.

100,000 bar (introduced in 1966)

Black Jack gum (1871)

Breck shampoo (1930)

Comet cleanser (1956)

Gold Bond body powder (1908)

Good & Plenty (1890)

Mister Salty Pretzels (1960s)

Ovaltine (1904)

Pepsodent toothpaste (1930s)

Prell shampoo (1947)

RC Cola (1905)

Rinso detergent (1918)

Tab (1963)

Marathon candy bar (1970s)

Quisp breakfast cereal (1965)

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