Sometimes in life, you start with one idea and realize there is a much better idea right under your nose, so you shift gears. No harm done, right? It’s not just people, either. Companies can do the same thing until they find what works.
Here are 25 Famous Brands That Used to Sell Something Different.
Shell Literally Sold Shells
The BP in BP gas stands for British Petroleum. Exxon got their name when Esso and Enco merged, wanted to use Exon, but discovered that was the name of Nebraska’s governor, so they just added an X. And Shell? That one was much more literal.
In the 1800s, antique dealer Marcus Samuel expanded his business by selling exotic seashells. This required a large import/export infrastructure. When he passed away, his sons took over and developed an interest in importing and exporting oil. Thus, set the foundations for one of the biggest oil companies in the modern world, born from selling sea shells.
Coleco Used to Make Leather
If you’re a video game historian, you know that Coleco was one of the early names in the market, alongside Atari with their home console Colecovision in the early 1980s. The company may not exist anymore but they were an important part of building what has become a multi-billion dollar industry. This is ironic considering that Coleco’s origins were as the Connecticut Leather Company, where they got the Co Le and Co for the name from. The company originally made shoe leather and leather kits before getting into plastic molding and finally video games.
Textron Makes Military Aircraft But Used to Make Yarn
Do you need a helicopter? How about the Bell V-280 Valor, which is going to replace the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk? It’s made by Bell Helicopters, a company which is owned by a company called Textron. They also produce other aircraft, like Cessna planes. And, as you’ve no doubt guessed, the company started all the way back in 1923 as the Special Yarns Company which made, well, yarn.
Lamborghini Started Out Making Tractors
When it comes to sports cars, a few names will always come to mind for people. McLaren. Ferrari, Lamborghini. These are super sleek, super fast and super expensive cars. But not everyone set out with that goal in mind. Italian manufacturer Lamborghini got started making farm equipment – specifically tractors. A beef with Enzo Ferrari led to the sports cars, but the company still makes tractors to this day.
Avon Used to Sell Books
Nearly everyone knows about Avon, the cosmetics company that has been around seemingly forever and made its mark by selling makeup door to door. They made about $9 billion in 2020 so their direct sales method is still a powerhouse.
The company traces its origins to the 1800s when founder David H. McConnell was a door-to-door book salesman. In order to get his foot in the door, he offered women a free vial of perfume that he made himself. When he realized the perfume was much more popular than the books, he leaned into it and the rest is history.
Mazda Used to Make Corks
Mazda made over $25 billion in profit in 2022 and that’s impressive for a company that was founded to sell corks. The company was founded in 1920 as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co in Hiroshima. After about a decade in the cork game the company did a complete 180 and got into manufacturing vehicles.
Samsung Was Basically a General Store
Samsung is a global giant today making everything from cell phones to TVs to refrigerators and washing machines. And, in a way, this kind of variety is in their genes since before the company was making half a trillion dollars a year, it was selling a bunch of other random things.
Founded as Samsung Sanghoe in 1938, the company was essentially a big general store. Dried fish, noodles and other groceries were how they made their money at the time. By the 1950s, the company was branching out and forming divisions to deal in new and more diverse products like insurance, construction, and even a theme park. Electronics just turned out to be their big money maker.
Wrigley Sold Soap and Baking Soda
Wrigley might be better known as the field where the Cubs play baseball even more so than the chewing gum company but the company actually bought the team in 1921 and named the field in 1927 all thanks to the money from their chewing gum empire. It didn’t start out that way, of course.
William Wrigley’s company began selling the same soap his father used to sell – Wrigley’s Scouring Soap. He offered vendors added bonuses, like baking powder, if they bought the soap and his sales began to grow. It was going so well he started focusing more on the baking powder, itself a new and desirable product at the time. To help sell the powder, he added chewing gum as a bonus and history repeated itself with the gum soon becoming even more popular.
Mountain Dew Was Originally a Whiskey Chaser
Mountain Dew fills a niche in the modern soda market for a sort of citrus beverage like Sprite and 7-Up but is a little more youth-focused and also more well-known for producing numerous variant formulas. Though it’s made by PepsiCo, that wasn’t always the case and when it first appeared it wasn’t a soft drink for gamers or a nice compliment to Taco Bell, it was meant to be a whiskey chaser.
Moonshine back in the 1930s was harsh and drinking it was something you had to really want to do. Brother Barney and Ally Hartman invented Mountain Dew as a chaser for moonshine so people could stand drinking it.
Taco Bell Was Originally a Hot Dog Stand
Speaking of Taco Bell, if you follow the company back far enough in the past you’ll discover Glen Bell who used to run Bell’s Drive-In, a restaurant that sold hot dogs and burgers but not tacos back in 1948. But do you know who sold tacos? The Mitla Cafe, located directly across the street from Bell’s Drive-In.
Bell saw how popular the tacos were and got friendly with the restaurant staff. So friendly he wormed his way into the kitchen and learned their recipes. In 1951, he had his own taco stand and by 1962 the first official Taco Bell had opened.
Play Doh Started as Wallpaper Cleaner
Play Doh is a weird product in that it’s kind of like clay but not really. The distinctive smell and the fun colors have been a part of the childhood’s of millions of kids and the company never planned any of that when it first began making the stuff.
The company was a struggling soap manufacturer that was tasked with making wallpaper cleaner, a hot commodity at a time when coal soot was an issue inside people’s homes. They produced the cleaner, and all was well until gas furnaces began to replace coal and no one needed wallpaper cleaner anymore.
The sister-in-law of one of the guys who ran the company ran a daycare and had given some of the wallpaper cleaner to the kids to play with and they loved it. She told her brother-in-law who played with the formula by adding color and a scent and boom, Play Doh was born.
Nokia Started as a Paper Mill
You’ll notice by now that a lot of popular electronics companies had some weird origins that were totally out of left field and Nokia is no different. One of the early pioneers in the cell phone game, Nokia was a paper manufacturer back in the 1800s.
By the early 1900s, the company was selling electricity which kind of makes sense since paper mills were often on rivers and used water to make the paper. Running water was just as important to move turbines and make power. The company was later bought by another one that made phone and power cables and by the 60s they were making phones.
Louis Vuitton Used to be a Box Maker
These days Louis Vuitton is one of those companies mentioned alongside Gucci or Prada and it involves the idea of elegance and also luxury. Also money. But Vuitton didn’t start out as any sort of high-brow manufacturer of anything except boxes.
Louis Vuitton the man, or the boy rather, got a job when he was 13 working for a packer. People took fancy packaging seriously back in the day. So the company made custom boxes for various goods. By 1852, Vuitton was so well known as a maker of fine boxes he was hired by Napoleon’s wife Josephine. Now he was established as an elite and his new line of travel trunks became all the rage.
Eventually, his family carried on in the business, expanding beyond trunks and luggage to all manner of high-end and elegant products.
Tiffany and Co Sold Stationery
One of the most well-known names in jewelry today is Tiffany and Co. They’re chiefly known for diamond and silver jewelry but they do sell a variety of other goods including stationery. That might seem a little out of place but that’s actually the living history of the company.
Back in 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany started the company and sold stationery and not much else. It was only in the 1850s that the company really began to focus on things like jewelry
IBM Once Made Meat Slicers
IBM may be known as a giant in the computer world today but the company was founded in the 1880s, well before computer technology was around, so what the heck kept them in business? They were still in the tech field, sort of, just in a more rudimentary and everyday way. They used to sell machines like meat slicers, scales, punch cards, time recorders, and more. Some early work on tabulators and calculators set the stage for what was to come.
OPI Nail Polish was a Dental Company
If you’re not big on doing your nails, you may not be aware that OPI is one of the biggest names in nail polish in the world. Founded in 1981 as Odontorium Products Inc, they manufactured dental supplies including dentures. After realizing they could manufacture acrylic nails in much the same way and with the same material as dentures they broke into the beauty market and soon transitioned to nail polish and lacquer, cornering a huge portion of the market.
3M Mined Minerals for Grinders
The name 3M gives a small clue to the actual origins of this company. The three “Ms” stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing which is how the company began over a hundred years ago. Back then they weren’t making Scotch tape or sticky notes or anything the company is known for today. Instead, they existed to mine for a mineral called corundum which was used in sandpaper and grinders.
Nascar Came Out of Bootlegging
Nascar is huge these days and is well known for being one of the biggest stack car racing organizations in the world. What’s surprising is that it didn’t start that way, or at least not technically. The company that exists today grew out of the age or prohibition and, in particular, the practice of bootlegging alcohol.
Oakley Sold Motorcycle Grips
While Oakley makes some popular sunglasses today, when Jim Jannard started the company in 1976 he was more concerned with motorcycles. He used to make handlebars and grips for bikes with a material called unobtanium which, in reality, is just their patented form of rubber.
Eyewear became a secondary product they manufactured, using the same material in the arms and nose pieces, and the product line was a hit.
DuPont Started Out Making Gunpowder
DuPont is one of the biggest chemical companies in history and developed everything from nylon to Kevlar to Freon. Also, any number of horrible chemicals like CFCs and other pollutants, but all of that started way back in the year 1802 when E.I. DuPont came to America to manufacture better gunpowder. That was the company’s only product at first and they supplied massive amounts to the Union Army during the Civil War.
Sanrio Used to Sell Silk
Sanrio is the company behind Hello Kitty and the million and one products that have Hello Kitty on them. They seem pretty well established in this field today but that wasn’t always the case. Long before any expressionless cat came into the picture they sold silk. Later this included rubber sandals and the owner soon realized sandals with cute cartoons on them sold better.
Sales grew, and they sold a wide range of products featuring various colorful images until 1975 when a simple purse featuring a cartoon cat with the word “hello” under it exploded.
Nintendo Made Playing Cards Over a Century Ago
Nintendo has been a dominant force in gaming for decades and no one can deny the popularity of iconic characters like Mario and Luigi. But the company predates not just video games but even electricity in most homes. They started the business all the way back in 1889 in Kyoto as a playing card business.
Hasbro Sold Cloth Scraps
Perhaps the most famous toy company in history, Hasbro is behind such huge lines as GI Joe, Transformers, board games like Monopoly, and Pokemon cards among so many others. The company’s roots stretch back to 1923 when a pair of brothers started the company to sell textile scraps.
They made pencil box liners out of the scraps and then pencil cases and then pencils themselves. Because they were focused on products for kids, they also began to make toys. Mr. Potato Head soon followed and the toy business took off like never before.
Flickr Started as a Photos Sharing Chat Room for an MMO
Flickr is a massive image hosting service today but its origins were a little off the beaten path. It was born from a multiplayer game called Game Neverending. In developing the game, the creators thought it’d be cool to drop photos into chat so they developed a platform to do that. They created a sort of mishmash photo host/social network to accompany the game that eventually outlasted the idea of the game and gave rise to Flickr.
Defense Company Raytheon Started in Home Appliances
One of the most well-known defense contractors of the modern world, Raytheon makes missiles, drones, jet engines, cybersecurity systems, and all kinds of other cutting-edge technology that can be used in war and elsewhere. So how did they get here? Fridges.
The company started in 1922 as the American Appliance Company, manufacturing not refrigerators as they’d planned, but tube sets for radios. Eventually, this led to radar and other military applications and it grew from there.