Turning Shower Scum Into Gold

A radio DJ blitz sent tiny Automation Inc.'s spray soaring

In August, 1993, Robert H. Black experienced a life-changing event: His wife made him clean the shower. He wanted to make sure it would be the last time. "I didn't realize what a nasty job this was," he recalls. "Being an inventor, I invented my way out of it."

His solution, literally, was Clean Shower, a spray-on liquid whose key ingredients include a food preservative. Rather than just loosening soap scum and mildew for easy scrubbing, it creates a protective barrier against "shower soils." If used regularly after showering, Black claims, it eliminates the need to scrub a shower stall ever again.

In the past 12 months, the product has cleaned up more than $12 million in sales and crept up on market leaders like Dow Chemical Co.'s Dow Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner and Clorox Co.'s Tilex Lemon Soap Scum Remover. "It's causing the national brands to rethink their product," says Lisa Woodward, a spokesperson for Target Stores.

That's a coup for the 28-employee, Jacksonville (Fla.)-based Automation Inc., an umbrella company for Black's various inventions. It's especially impressive because they did it with a mere $1 million ad budget--a big sum for a tiny startup but only 5% to 10% of what big players typically spend on a national product rollout.

To do the job, Clean Shower relied on a radio advertisement campaign featuring the ad lib endorsements of some 1,000 radio DJs, from local jocks to famous, nationally syndicated personalities Charles Osgood and Rush Limbaugh.

This Cinderella marketing tale began in the summer of 1993, when Black, who has a BS in chemistry and graduate degrees in electrical engineering and business, mixed his first gallon of citrus-scented Clean Shower. Friends and relatives tested the product. "I knew I had something when people came back and were very aggressive with me, saying, `You can't let me run out--you don't understand, I don't want to clean the shower anymore."'

FREE SAMPLES. Black knew how to make the stuff but not how to sell it. After failing to persuade supermarket brokers to move the unknown product, in late 1994 he hired a public-relations agency to tell his story. TV news reports on Clean Shower landed the product in 120 Jacksonville Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. outlets, but generated only modest sales. In one particularly wacky moment, Black decided to enlist a fundamentalist missionary to dispense samples at a beauty parlor.

His first big break came in April, 1995, when he attended a business breakfast in Jacksonville and got the chance to promote his invention to 100 venture capitalists. Instead of making a pitch for funds, Black handed out free samples and suggested buying more at the local Winn-Dixie. In the audience was Paul Porter, a real estate developer consigned to shower duty during his wife's pregnancy. Porter, a former utilities executive, says he tried Clean Shower for nine days, then "went to Bob's office at 7 a.m. and didn't leave until I owned part of the company." (The company won't disclose the stakes of the partners, who include a third, silent one.)

Porter contributed marketing know-how and used a family connection to get Clean Shower into Demoulas Supermarkets Inc., a 57-store, Tewksbury (Mass.)-based chain. Armed with shelf space, the partners tested a plan hatched while listening to Jacksonville radio hosts "Ron and Ron." Porter said: "If one Ron would use it and the other didn't, then on the air they could discuss the difference in their showers."

Seeking the Boston equivalent of "Ron and Ron," the partners advertised on the show of popular coed morning talk duo "Clapprood and Whitley." Working without a script, "Whitley, the male, would say, `I got stuff growing in my shower. You could make penicillin in there,"' recalls Porter. Then, Clapprood would plug Clean Shower.

Although live endorsements are as old as radio, the intimate format was the perfect way to give consumers step-by-step instructions. (Scrubbing or rinsing Clean Shower removes the protective film. It must be reapplied regularly after showers.) And listeners tend to trust their DJs. "Even though we know DJs can be bought, we want to believe what this person says while hawking is true because we want to believe everything else they say is true," says Austin Howe, a partner in the Portland (Ore.)-based agency, Radioland Inc., which crafts radio ads for such clients as Nike, Coca-Cola, and E. & J. Gallo Winery.

The strategy worked wonders in Boston. "We started selling eight cases per store per week. That's like eight times our normal," says Porter, who says he visited more than 1,000 DJs at about 800 stations around the country to insist they try the product. "We believe that a listener can tell when a radio personality is putting you on," says Porter. Initially, many DJs were skeptical--such as Dick Purtan of WOMC-FM oldies radio in Detroit. "I walked away from the pitch thinking, `I doubt this stuff will work."' But after trying the product himself, he was sold.

As more DJs signed on, Black and Porter found the ads were working a bit too well. Stores ran out of Clean Shower early in the usual four-week ad cycle, leaving customers frustrated. So Clean Shower convinced radio stations to let them stagger their four weeks of ads over a ten-week period, giving stores time to catch up to demand.

RUSH SPOTS. As the ads played in each new market, more stores began to carry the product. By January, 1997, Clean Shower had landed its first national distribution through Target Stores. To reach a national audience, Limbaugh was hired for an undisclosed sum to promote the product on his syndicated show. Limbaugh, who concedes he can't use it in his marble bathrooms, instead plays the testimonials from pretaped callers. The results? In the six months since the Limbaugh ads began to air, the number of stores selling Clean Shower has doubled, to 36,000 stores.

The partners have increased the ad budget to $3 million next year as they scramble to solidify Clean Shower's position as the first preventative shower cleaner. Summoning even more celebrity power, this month they'll bring aboard talk jock Don Imus.

Clean Shower's formula relies upon the food preservative, EDTA, isopropyl alcohol, ionized water, and a "surfactant" to lift soil. Yet every chemical reaction needs a catalyst. In Clean Showers' case, a good word from some of the nation's biggest mouths may be the most potent ingredient of all.

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