Bye, Bye Big Brands, Twinkie, Ding Dong: Hostess Brands, Inc. Liquidating

Ghostbusters, Die Hard, my lunch in grade school all had Twinkies (OK my lunch also alternated with Ding Dongs). In Ghostbusters the Twinkie symbolized psychokinetic energy, in Die Hard it substituted for a cop’s doughnuts, in my lunch it was I guess dessert but substituted for real food. The Wall Street Journal reports, however, that the era is over. Hostess Brands, Inc. is seeking permission to liquidate the company. It’s attempt at reorganization has failed. According to WSJ, “A victim of changing consumer tastes, high commodity costs and, most importantly, strained labor relations, Hostess ultimately was brought to its knees by a national strike orchestrated by its second-largest union.”

There are real people, places, and assets behind these brands. 18,000 workers will lose their jobs. 36 plants will close. The facilities and land will be sold. There is product inventory too. “Loaves of bread and plastic packages of icing-filled desserts” need to go. WSJ suggested that big box stores will be where the food stuff ends up. I remember when Coke changed its formula and folks hoarded the original Real Thing. I wonder whether that will happen with Twinkies. (Given the supposed shelf-life of a Twinkie, a strange pastry cellar built for and owned by some fanatic seems plausible to me).

And, Hostess Brands will sell…its brands. That is where the most money may be made. As I point out in From Trademarks to Brands, brands are not the same thing as trademarks. In the early days of trademarks, one could not sell a brand without the facilities. Today the brand as assest is a given. Selling it as thing is sanctioned by the law even though such practices do not do well within the law economics explanations for trademarks. I argue that a way to understand the move from direct competition to anonymous source, the growth of goodwill, and the expansive view of merchandising and licensing can be explained by brand practices much more than Landes and Posner’s law and economics view. (64 Florida L. Rev. 981, 1009-1019).

I wonder how folks will perceive the sale. If a company buys the name Twinkie or Ding Dong and then makes the cakes with different ingredients or sources for the ingredients, will that matter? What if the taste varies? What if in a year people think Hostess still makes Twinkies and buys the brand based on that error? Is that confusion we care about? Maybe we should not care about any of these. Then again if someone buys Twinkie and uses a new recipe, and then someone makes Twinkies with the original recipe, should that be allowed? Probably not but why is unclear. A healthy market that assumes rational consumers should be able to let information about such variances drive the market, right? Of course we don’t do that in trademark law.

Hmm, perhaps some sugar will help fuel thinking through these points. Better get Twinkies and Ding Dongs before this incarnation is gone.