By Andrew Leckey

Staying relevant is never easy for a company or its long-suffering investors.

Firms and their products can go in and out of style--and out of profitability, as well. Selecting those that will prosper year after year through good and bad times while rewarding their shareholders is an accomplishment.

Because times do change.

"When I was coming up in the business, when you made your first sale your company would reward you with a very expensive writing pen," recalls Richard Cripps, chief market strategist for Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore. "That's not happening today and such pens have basically become irrelevant."

The t-shirt has been a key product of Under Armour Inc. from since the firm's beginning in 1996. While many companies worldwide obviously make t-shirts, Under Armour's unique style and marketing keep it in the forefront, Cripps pointed out. It is a trendsetter that other companies watch closely as it replenishes its product lines.

Investment experts can recommend the stock of many corporations in 2011 that have survived not only decades but sometimes more than a century and still remain viable. For example, media and entertainment businesses keep abreast of trends because of fierce competition and ever-changing tastes of the public, said Cripps.

When artist Walt Disney received a contract for a short film in 1923, it marked the beginning of what would become the Walt Disney Co. (DIS), according to the company. Famous for traditional characters such as Mickey Mouse and theme parks, it's now also a powerful force in broadcasting, cable television and films, as well as a leader in the most forward-looking, creative animation through its Pixar business.

Here's another oldie with investment potential: The merger of Edison General Electric Co. and Thomson-Houston Electric Co. in 1892 created the General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), the only company currently listed in the Dow Jones industrial index that was included in the original index in 1896.

"GE has maintained its preeminent global business franchise, even though its businesses today are unbelievably different from what they were 100 or 50 years ago," said Cripps. "Another example is American Express Co. (NYSE: AXP), which looks far different from it did when it started yet it has worked to retain its strong brand recognition in the marketplace."

Milton Hershey's Hershey Chocolate Co. in rural Pennsylvania first began turning out milk chocolate in 1905, according to the company. Products such as dark chocolate weren't anywhere on the horizon then, yet as other candy brands melted away Hershey Co. (HSY) remained a leader that attracts the sweet tooth of all ages.

There's always an opposite side of the coin: Once-mighty Blockbuster Inc. fell behind the competition and wound up filing for bankruptcy before it was bought at auction by Dish Network, Cripps said.

"What companies that remain relevant over the long haul have in common is outstanding management, sensitivity to customers and the ability to return value consistently through consistent dividend increases," believes Kelley Wright, managing editor of the Investment Quality newsletter in Carlsbad, Calif.

Even if a company is old, if it has the ability to identify new markets it remains current in its focus, Wright observed.

Procter and Gamble (NYSE: PG), the world's largest consumer product manufacturer, that has been around since 1837, might seem "as dull and boring as any company out there," but 65 percent of revenues now come from overseas, Wright noted. It is able to identify markets outside the U.S. that are growing and stand to benefit from the rising middle class consumers there. Its brands well-known in the U.S. for so long are increasingly becoming well-known globally, as well.

Smaller companies that don't meet expectations are in for trouble these days, but it isn't so critical for a firm with substantial finances and cash flow.

"When a higher-capitalized, defensive, dividend-paying company misses its earnings by a penny or so, it isn't the end of the world," said Steven Goldman, senior market strategist for Weeden and Co. in Greenwich, Conn. "We're in the third year of a classic bull market, a time when investors turn to the more established names that stand the test of time."

Health and hygiene firm Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB), established in 1870 and famous for leading brands such as Kleenex, Scott and Huggies, generates about 45 percent of its sales outside North America. In emerging markets, it has been positioning many of its brands as higher-priced premium offerings, giving it the flexibility to reduce prices later if it looks like the market requires it. That's definitely thinking ahead.

"When you buy stock in Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO), Johnson and Johnson (JNJ), PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD), you own companies that have stayed relevant over long time periods," said Wright. "You can own these companies generally at a price where they offer good historic value pretty much all the time."

Continuing to do what a company does best while regularly adding new products that build upon that tradition is what Apple Inc. (AAPL), incorporated in 1977, is doing right now, Wright pointed out.

"Apple is killing the competition," concluded Wright. "I had never owned an Apple product, but within five minutes of trying out an iPhone I was hooked because that phone is just so intuitive."


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