Inadvertent gain from sensation

Interest in Lewis case boosts firm's name recognition

February 24, 2000|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Quick, name a limousine company in the Baltimore region.

If All Stretched Out came to mind, you have fallen prey to one of the creepy twists of high-profile crimes and infamous incidents: They can create brand-name recognition that money can't buy.

While the murder case against Ray Lewis case has riveted Baltimore, several news accounts have mentioned the owner of the limousine he was riding in that night: Linthicum-based All Stretched Out Limousine Service. The stretch limousine sustained four bullet holes and about $4,000 in damage during the incident in which two men were slain.

But the company is not complaining. "It hasn't really hurt us," said Lorena Cochran, one of the owners of All Stretched Out. "It actually has been quite a bit of publicity."

In the days after the slayings, about one-third of the roughly 45 daily callers to All Stretched Out mentioned the Lewis case, Cochran said. If All Stretched Out gets a little bit of a bump from the car's coincidental involvement in the case, it won't be the first time a corporation has gotten a windfall from a crime.

O. J. Simpson became an accidental pitchman for a number of products in the mid-1990s when he was accused of two slayings. Sales of Ford Broncos jumped after Simpson drove one in a televised California highway chase. So did those Aris Isotoner gloves that got so much attention at his trial. Even though Simpson called them ugly, Bruno Magli shoes also benefited from the Simpson trial, according to retail experts.

And consider Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern, who attracted all sorts of attention to her Gap dress and DKNY beret.

"There is an old adage in the PR and marketing field," said David Blum, vice president of strategic planning for Eisner Communications, a Baltimore advertising firm. "There is no such thing as negative publicity. There's only publicity. Getting the brand name out there is always the challenge."

Sometimes, he said, "it happens in a negative context, but it allows your brand to get attention that it ordinarily wouldn't get -- without any spending."

Blum used Bruno Magli shoes as the typical example. Before the Simpson trial, most people were not familiar with the designer brand. Five years later, he said, the story is radically different. "We might not remember when we heard about them," he said. "But we have heard about them."

It's not that any association with infamy helps. The fact that 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult were wearing Nike shoes when they committed suicide turned out to be a public relations nightmare for the athletic shoe company.

Cochran said she believes the story for All Stretched Out is positive because neither the company nor its driver did anything to contribute to the crime. "It's beneficial," she said, "as long as you haven't done anything wrong or inappropriate."

It's not that the company is celebrating. Cochran said she feels sorry for all involved in the case and alarmed that the limousine was in a place where it was shot at. And it's impossible to say for sure whether the case has boosted business for All Stretched Out, which has fielded tons of media as well as customer calls since the slayings.

Still, she said, the company has always been about getting as much attention as possible. All Stretched Out, which started with one car in 1988 and now has 24, was one of the first limousine companies to use super-long, eye-catching cars with unusual features.

"We always wanted to do something that was different, that was very unique," she said. "We built one car several years ago that had a Jacuzzi in the rear."

So in some ways, the case has been another way to get the company's name in circulation. "It's good advertising," Cochran said.

In The Sun alone, the name of the company has been mentioned in eight newspaper articles, including five that appeared on the front page. Chances are good that there will be more. Each stage in a criminal justice case tends to produce its own cycle of stories. In the Lewis case, at least some of them are likely to mention All Stretched Out.

For Blum, of Eisner Communications, the effect has been clear. "For limousines, if I have no other `top-of-mind' category, you've now put a company into consideration," he said. "I might go to the phone book, but here is one I've heard of."

In addition, he said, the company now has an association with celebrity that some consumers seem to love. Some people might be thinking that if they rent a car from All Stretched Out, they could get the Ray Lewis limousine.

"The study of the American consumer's behavior shows time and time again," Blum said, "that people like to be a part of things."

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