A recent Seeking Alpha post surveyed The Top 12 Brands Likely to Disappear. While we don't disagree with any of the selections on that list, we believe it might be useful for investors to consider a list of brands that are currently under fire but appear likely to survive -- and eventually thrive. Investors who successfully invest in undervalued companies that own valuable brands should do quite well over time.
1. Playboy adult entertainment: The brand is owned by Playboy Enterprises (NYSE: PLA), which also owns the Playboy Mansion, a unique real estate property in Bel Air, California. Playboy is much more than a publishing business, with future value likely to come primarily from brand licensing. The latter is already a significant and growing generator of operating income. The company needs to reposition itself as a lifestyle company rather than a publishing business.
2. American Express payment cards: While American Express (NYSE: AXP) is close to the eye of the ongoing credit storm, the company appears to have sufficient liquidity to weather the storm. The brand remains strong, and the franchise enjoys sustainable competitive advantage, both with consumers and merchants. Having Warren Buffett and Bruce Berkowitz as major shareholders doesn't hurt, either.
3. Zale jewelry: Zale (NYSE: ZLC) has a leveraged balance sheet, but also substantial tangible book value backed by an appreciating asset -- jewelry. If inflation ever rears its ugly head, a company like Zale may help investors keep up, as the company's significant inventory would likely keep pace with consumer price increases.
4. Sony consumer electronics: The Japanese giant Sony (NYSE: SNE) enjoys one of the most recognized brand names in the world. With shares trading at a fraction of revenue and a low multiple of normalized earning power, Sony may not only thrive as a brand but may also reward investors for their patience.
5. Steinway & Sons grand pianos: Steinway Musical (NYSE: LVB) owns the venerable piano brand as well as a number of band instrument brands, including Conn-Selmer and Leblanc. Perhaps unknown to many investors, Steinway also owns a large office building in Midtown Manhattan and significant real estate on Long Island, New York. Depending on the value of those real estate holdings, investors may be in a position to own the musical brands virtually for free.
6. Sears stores: Eddie Lampert-run Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD) owns the Sears, K-Mart, Die Hard, Land's End and other consumer brands. While Sears and K-Mart are seriously challenged as brands, the company itself has everything in place to maximize shareholder value, most of all a master capital allocator at the helm.
7. Sotheby's auction services: The respected auction house Sotheby's (NYSE: BID) shares the top of the high-end auction world with Christie's. It appears highly likely that Sotheby's will remain a go-to place in the auction business for a long time to come. The company owns its headquarters building in Manhattan and recently attracted the attention of investor Steven Cohen of SAC Capital.
8. Skechers footwear: The Skechers (NYSE: SKX) brand retains a wide following and is owned by a company with one of the strongest balance sheets in the footwear industry. The company is a borderline Ben Graham-style "net net," with current assets minus total liabilities approximating recent market value.
9. K-Swiss athletic footwear: K-Swiss (Nasdaq: KSWS) invented the leather tennis shoe in the 1960s and maintains a classic look that has not changed much over the decades. While K-Swiss is a tired brand right now, CEO Steven Nichols has managed to revive the brand twice before, and we would not bet against him.
10. Dell computers: Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) faces many challenges, ranging from weak global PC demand to the advent of low-cost netbooks. Nonetheless, the company's direct model continues to give it a cost advantage. With a solid balance sheet and capable management, Dell is certain to survive. The only question is whether it will ever again reach its prior heights.
11. LendingTree online loan marketplace: Owned by InterActiveCorp (Nasdaq: IACI) spinoff Tree.com (Nasdaq: TREEV), LendingTree is seeing a resurgence in business due to low refi rates. Tree.com has a large net cash position and also owns the website RealEstate.com, providing a strong foundation for future value creation.
12. New York Times newspapers: While the writing seems to be on the proverbial wall for the newspaper business, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) brand will survive -- the only question is in what form. The company may have to find a way to charge for online content or to monetize its vast content library.
Disclosure: Long PLA. No position in other companies mentioned in this post.