Online Extra: "The Brand Whisperer"

When Jeffrey Himmel brings a forgotten brand back to life, watch the ad budget soar -- and products like Doan's pills fly off the shelves

From Zamboni to Kryptonite, a surprising number of big brands have small companies behind them. It's no simple feat to reach that status, and these little players tend to share several characteristics: They aggressively carve out a niche. They outsource with finesse. They sometimes get their message out -- and their product to market -- by teaming up with much bigger actors. And they market relentlessly.

Another common trait is what they make. They all have healthy products whose appeal is on the rise.

Then there's The Himmel Group. Jeffrey Himmel could be called "The Brand Whisperer." It's his company's mission to seek out neglected, downtrodden brands and nurse them back to market health.

Over two generations, New York-based Himmel Group has purchased and rehabilitated the likes of Lavoris mouthwash, Doan's backache pills, Gold Bond medicated powder, and Ovaltine chocolate drink. "We look for the brands that are well-known, but mistaken for dead," says Himmel, who adds: "We bring them back." His resusitation tactics are deceptively simple. No big budgets or Internet strategies. Just a good old-fashioned advertising overload, carried out by a staff of 35.

How does he do it? Himmel starts by finding a brand with what he calls "dormant equity". Often, that's a brand that had its heyday years ago and has since languished on the roster of some conglomerate, neither thriving nor dying. He purchases the rights to market the brand. And then, the road back begins.

Bare-bones ads. Himmel creates all his advertising in-house, and if you've ever seen it, that won't come as a surprise. His TV spots are basic as basic can be. The name of the product is mentioned in the first 10 seconds. The product benefits are listed quickly and succinctly. The product name gets a few more mentions. Then it's a quick close, with a shot of the product packaging. Some spots cost as little as $3,000 to produce. "It's not brilliant or funny or creative," Himmel concedes. "But it gets cash registers to ring."

Airwaves blitz. When Himmel has a product on the market, you'll know about it. His tactics: Dominate the ad space. In 1992, after purchasing the rights to market Ovaltine chocolate drink, Himmel blasted the airwaves with 30 different radio spots and six television commercials. Retail sales doubled in the first 100 days of the campaign, Himmel says. And while Ovaltine had an 11% market share among chocolate drinks mixes in 1992, it now controls 29% with sales of $40 million. "Frequency," says Himmel, "is the key."

Product extensions. Once the brand is back, the new construction begins. Gold Bond medicated powder was a small regional brand when Himmel bought its marketing rights in 1990 and took it national. After the ad blitz got sales growing again, new products joined the line: a baby powder, an anti-itch cream, and an extra-strength version. Sales grew to $27 million. "There was more to the Gold Bond story than one product," says Himmel. "You have to see where the brand can take you."

Himmel says he's only using tactics that have worked for consumer-products giants through the ages. It was what Harley Procter did in 1881 when he began marketing Ivory soap. "He invested heavily in advertising and the rest is history," Himmel says. "It's the only investment that can make you a leading brand." Even if you've been given up for dead.

By Ellen Neuborne in New York

Edited by Fred Strasser

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