The Sharper Image emerges from the ashes as a "virtual brand"

The Sharper Image, once a staple at malls around the country, was snuffed out of business last year. Strangely, it seems that providing people with a free place to try out a massage recliner is not a viable business model.

But there's still some value in the techno-gadget brand name, and at the Consumer Electronics Store in Las Vegas this week, the newly reborn Sharper Image made its comeback. The private equity firm that controls the company are now letting outside companies release products under The Sharper Image name, giving it new life as a "virtual brand."

HoMedics, a Michigan company that makes (surprise) massage chairs, created a new company, SI Products, that would put out cheaper stuff under the banner of the deceased luxury gizmo peddler. So far, 24 products are available under the reborn name, but more companies are applying to add additional ones. By the end of the year, you'll be able to buy Sharper Image products at big stores like Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy's.

And because the enterprise no longer has to prop up those expensive stores, it can afford to bring the prices lower. In fact, one of its first new products, an iPod Touch dock that automatically rotates your device so it goes into landscape mode, goes for $100, much less than you'd have found at its bricks-and-mortar stores. After all, if there's any taint on the Sharper Image name, it's that the products it sold were expensive luxury novelties that were fun to try at the mall, but you'd never bring home. But the brand's reputation for inventive homewares lingers.

Creating a virtual brand isn't a bad idea. Brand loyalty and awareness are tough to come by, and it's smart to think of ways to wring more business out of a name that got stuck in a financial quagmire but still has a profile of reliability or desirability. The guys who make South Park obtained the name and logo of Braniff, a long-dead airline, as a lark. But the consumer graveyard is littered with names that still have some legitimate life in them yet.

Linens 'n Things, will we see your name soaking up business again on a towel label in the near future? What other once-trusted brands would be ripe for a resurrection?

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