They are among the most instantly recognizable brands on the planet, with products that variously feed, entertain and accommodate an incredible amount of people across the globe. But while each has performed remarkably well in its respective field, none of the following ten companies started out doing what they’re famous for doing today. From a formerly gunpowder-producing pharmaceutical company to an initially root beer-toting hotel chain – not to mention a luxury car brand that used to be more farm than fast lane – these firms have successfully abandoned their original core offerings in favor of products that have made them more in demand and, crucially, more lucrative. Furthermore, in some cases the results have been nothing short of groundbreaking.
A little over two centuries ago, one William Colgate set up shop on New York City’s Dutch Street, and yet the man who gave his name to perhaps the world’s most famous toothpaste brand wasn’t originally motivated by promoting oral hygiene. Indeed, starch, candles and soap were more his thing; the fledgling Colgate company even went on to open a starch factory in New Jersey in 1820. It wasn’t until 1873 – 67 years after the business’ founding – that Colgate launched toothpaste, initially in jars; the firm’s iconic toothpaste tube eventually hit shelves 23 years later. In the 1920s Colgate began to expand internationally – a savvy move, given the firm’s position as a global market leader today. In 2014 the company’s net sales totaled almost $17.3 billion, and that same year Forbes ranked it as the planet’s 64th most valuable brand.
In 1938, with the equivalent of around $30 in his pocket, a South Korean man by the name of Byung-Chull Lee founded what would grow to be one of the planet’s most recognized consumer electronics brands. Back then, though, Samsung – literally “three stars” – was naturally not a smartphone and tablet manufacturer but, rather, operated as a trader of fish, fruit and vegetables. Within ten years of its establishment, though, the company had exported enough foodstuffs to China to set up its own production and sales bases – Samsung’s baby steps to becoming the hugely successful transnational corporation that it is today. In 1970, furthermore, Samsung went on to stake its claim in the consumer electronics market, manufacturing its first TV in that year, in partnership with Sanyo. Indeed, the Samsung Group’s Samsung Electronics wing has gone on to become one of Forbes’ 2014 top ten most valuable brands on Earth, also reaching worldwide sales exceeding $200 billion by that same year.
Rather remarkably, Ferruccio Lamborghini initially made his name producing not luxury sports cars but tractors. Indeed, Lamborghini Trattori was established to sell the farming vehicles in 1948 and was successful by itself; as a result, with the help of a handful of other lucrative businesses, Lamborghini himself subsequently became rather affluent. It could have been that Lamborghini fancied a new challenge after making an impressive mark on the agricultural industry; regardless, he went on to create Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini in 1962 with the intention of producing a sports car to rival Ferrari’s. Launched in 1964, the resulting 350 GTV became an instant classic, and Lamborghini’s reputation for high-end sports cars has grown ever since. In fact, in 2013 the brand sold over 2,000 vehicles via 129 outlets in 46 nations, marking the third successive year that sales increased for the company.
In 1892 – a year after its foundation – Chicago’s William Wrigley Jr. Company began including free chewing gum sticks alongside its baking powder and soap products in order to reel in customers. When the gum ended up attracting more attention than the item actually on sale, however, Wrigley’s own chewing gum line was quickly born – with the company managing to successfully dispel the perception at the time that gum was a female-only product. Furthermore, in 1893 Wrigley launched arguably the firm’s two most successful offerings to date: Juicy Fruit and Spearmint. The company gambled by spending big on advertising in the early 20th century, but the risk paid off, as Wrigley would go on to become something of a national institution. By October 2012, the value of the planet’s favorite gum brand had reached $4.4 billion, and today it sells its products in more than 180 countries.
DuPont has become one of the U.S.’ primary pharmaceutical and biotech companies, but its rather explosive origins are likely not as well known. Indeed, after its establishment by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont in 1802, the Delaware-based outfit first specialized in gunpowder and other armament-related products. These remained at the core of DuPont’s offerings into the new century; in fact, the firm’s Repauno Chemical Company had become the biggest dynamite manufacturer around by the 1920s. In the 20th century, though, DuPont began producing a range of different chemicals, widening its scope to synthetic materials like nylon, industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical products. The company’s growth has also made du Pont’s heirs very wealthy, with the family fortune estimated at an incredible $15 billion by Forbes in 2014.
5. Taco Bell
He is attributed with introducing Mexican cuisine to the U.S. fast-food scene, but Taco Bell founder Glen Bell’s culinary career actually started without a fried tortilla in sight. Following World War II, the foodie entrepreneur launched the eponymous Bell’s Burgers – a modest fast-food operation that tapped into America’s growing appetite for over-the-counter meals – in San Bernardino, California. While the business was making money, though, its rivals were also getting in on the hamburger act, so Bell decided to add something completely new to Bell’s Burgers’ menu in an attempt to make it stand out from the crowd. That addition was the taco – and it soon became the restaurant’s most popular item. This success gave Bell the impetus to open a couple of collaborative taco-focused joints before in 1962 going on to launch Taco Bell in Downey, California. Today, Taco Bell is one of the most iconic fast-food chains in the world, and it’s one that is still expanding; in 2014, for example, the business opened 236 new outlets.
4. American Express
Perhaps the clue to American Express’ previous incarnation is in its name. In the mid-19th century, America was steadily growing toward the West Coast, and the U.S. Postal Service was not sufficiently up to the task of delivering vast amounts of commodities quickly between the country’s two frontiers. Step forward, then, the American Express Company, which took up the distribution challenge in 1850, often by using men on horseback. Banks soon proved to be the firm’s most lucrative customers, leading American Express to establish its own successful money ordering service in 1882. The First World War, furthermore, subsequently forced the company to diversify into the travel industry; and the decades since have seen business success on an incredible level. In fact, in 2014 Forbes rated American Express as the 26th most valuable brand globally, its sales totaling almost $35 billion.
Xerox is a brand linked so strongly with photocopying that its name is now used as a verb to describe that very process. But when its forerunner firm was established in Rochester, New York in 1906, such technology was still four decades away. Under the moniker Haloid Company, the enterprise instead then produced and supplied photographic paper. In the 1940s, though, the outfit snapped up the commercial rights to the process of xerography – photocopying, in layman’s terms – and changed its name to the Haloid Xerox Company. This led to the firm unveiling the groundbreaking Xerox 914 photocopier shortly before the onset of the ’60s, in a move that prompted a subsequent rebranding as Xerox Corporation in 1961. Connecticut-headquartered Xerox now has more than 140,000 employees in upward of 180 countries and generated $19.5 billion in turnover in 2014.
2. Marriott International
It’s hard to imagine humbler beginnings for one of the planet’s biggest hotel chains, but Marriott International was, once upon a time, a root beer outlet. In 1927 founder and then recent University of Utah graduate John Willard Marriott opened a franchised drinks kiosk in Washington D.C.; this was something eventually dubbed The Hot Shoppe once food was added to its offerings. The enterprise went on to become so profitable that over the next couple of decades Hot Shoppe restaurants began appearing in locations throughout the East Coast. Marriott then commenced expanding his business offerings by opening a motel in 1957; Marriot-Hot Shoppes, Inc., as the outfit was then known, swiftly became one of the most successful companies of its kind in the mid-20th century. In 1988 Marriott International unveiled its 500th lodging worldwide, and presently the Bethesda, Maryland-headquartered company employs 123,000 people around the globe and generates sales approaching $13 billion.
For a brand so synonymous with video games, it’s perhaps difficult to picture Nintendo’s existence before the consumer electronics age. But the company’s history actually goes right back to 1889, when its founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, started making traditional Japanese playing cards in Kyoto. In fact, the firm didn’t become known as Nintendo Co. Ltd. until 1963, at which point it finally branched out to other games. A fruitful electronics element emerged a decade later, beginning Nintendo’s new direction in earnest. The 1980s, in particular, saw Nintendo’s reputation as a video games manufacturer grow exponentially, with the hugely successful coin-operated arcade game Donkey Kong, the Nintendo Entertainment System and the iconic Game Boy all launched by the firm during that decade. In May 2014, meanwhile, Nintendo was revealed to be generating worldwide sales of more than $6 billion.