From cookies to cars, corporate takeovers redefine American products

Corporate takeovers can inexorably change companies. But they can also radically change well-known products. From cookies to cars and from coffee to newspapers, mergers have remade brands consumers have come to love, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Stella D'Oro cookies, for instance, have fans all over, but some of its products were particularly popular in Jewish communities where many people follow religious dietary laws. But after being acquired by Kraft (KFT) in 2003, the recipe changed and the treats lost their kosher certification, making them off limits for some of their most devoted fans.

While some corporate takeovers turn out to be unmitigated disasters and others give companies renewed strength -- see "Winners and losers: Ten headline-making M&A deals" -- the news isn't always good for consumers. Here's the skinny on how corporate takeovers changed some of America's best-loved brands:

YouTube: The video-sharing service grabbed headlines in 2006 when it sold itself to Google (GOOG) for an enormous $1.65 billion. Many analysts wondered if the deal would ever pay off for the search giant. But YouTube's users soon saw how Google planned to make its money back: By putting ads everywhere, including on top of videos themselves.

Gerber baby food: Sometimes a corporate merger can thrust a product into the middle of a controversy it played no part in creating. That's arguably what happened to Gerber when it was sold by pharmaceutical giant Novartis (NVS) to Nestle, one of the world's biggest food producers, in 2007.

Since the late 1970's, Nestle has been subject to boycotts and protests over its marketing of infant formula to mothers in developing countries and now that Gerber falls under its corporate umbrella, some consumers have shunned it as well.

Rolling Rock beer: "From the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe..." The slogan, long emblazoned along with the number 33 on Rolling Rock's distinctive green bottles, refers to Latrobe, Pa., where the lager was brewed. But after being bought by Anheuser Busch from Belgian beer giant InBev in 2006, its brewery moved to Newark, N.J. Boycotts ensued.

Ironically, Anheuser and InBev themselves merged in 2008, returning Rolling Rock to its previous owner. But the brewery will stay put.

Folgers coffee: Sometimes the biggest impact of a product's changing hands in a merger is invisible to consumers. That's the case with Folgers coffee, which was sold by Procter & Gamble (PG) to jam giant J. M. Smucker Co. (SJM) last year. Folgers, which makes and distributes Dunkin Donuts-brand coffee in grocery stores and elsewhere, helped Smucker boost sales by 81 percent in its most recent quarter.

The Wall Street Journal: When media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS) bought the Journal, media watchers speculated he wanted to move it away from its intense focus on business journalism in hopes of competing with The New York Times on political and international stories. You can bet the big-time bankers, who start each day poring over the Wall Street Journal, picked up right away on its makeover. Regular readers of the paper also soon noticed the difference: shorter articles and less financial news.

Perhaps the move is paying off: The Journal has the second-biggest circulation among U.S. newspapers and was one of just a pair of papers to add readers over a six-month period ending in March.

American Girl Dolls: This line of oversize dolls has always been as much, if not more, about storytelling as the toys themselves. That's drawn hordes of collectors. And some of them place a premium on dolls made before toymaker Mattel (MAT) acquired American Girl in 1998. Dolls advertised as "pre-Mattel" for sale on eBay (EBAY) can fetch more than brand new ones. Aficionados say small differences in the way the dolls are made account for the difference.

Volvo cars: One of Sweden's best-known car brands, Volvo, was long renowned for its safety record and its squarish design. (Remember the slogan "Buy Volvos: They're Boxy but Good" from the 1990 movie Crazy People?)

But that reputation -- for safety, not right angles -- took a blow in 2005, six years after Volvo was acquired by Ford (F). That year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety snubbed Volvo by leaving its cars off the organization's first-ever "Top Safety Picks" list. "Volvo is lagging behind its competitors," an IIHS spokesman said at the time.

Chrysler: Once one of the "Big Three" U.S. automakers, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and faces a potentially sweeping makeover at the hand of Fiat, the Italian car company that bought most of its assets. That will likely mean smaller, more fuel efficient cars such as the tiny Fiat 500 and fewer gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles will soon be on U.S. streets. It's a reminder of how profound change looms for many brands after the corporate dealmakers' work is done.

Stella D'Oro cookies: The company's "Swiss Fudge" cookies contained neither butter nor milk, making them particularly popular in Jewish communities where many people followed strict religious dietary laws. But when Kraft (KFT) acquired the company in 2003 and changed the recipe, "Swiss Fudge" lost its kosher certification - making those cookies off limits to many fans.


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