Fizzy remedy invented in Baltimore plans comeback

Burp ads may revive sickly Bromo Seltzer

September 30, 2006|By New York Times News Service

Another ghost brand is seeking to shed its ectoplasm and become more corporeal.

The brand is Bromo Seltzer, the effervescent antacid and analgesic first made in Baltimore in 1888. Its new owner will seek to revive interest in the moribund brand with a campaign centered on a mnemonic device, the "Bromo burp," that its creators hope will become a catch phrase.

Burp? Excuse me!

Bromo Seltzer is among scores of consumer products known as ghost brands or orphan brands because they were once formidable powerhouses in their categories but are now forlorn. The brands were forgotten or neglected by their owners, typically giant companies that market dozens of products, then used as cash cows to raise revenue for developing newer, often more advanced brands.

As reduced advertising spending hastens the slowing of sales for ghost brands, retailers relegate them to lower shelves or stop stocking them to cut clutter.

That reduces sales further, contributing to a downward spiral that usually ends in the graveyard of discontinued products among casualties like Duz detergent, Kellogg's Pep cereal, Oasis cigarettes and Plymouth cars.

Recently, owners of many ghost brands have been selling or licensing them to smaller, more entrepreneurial marketers that hope to revive them through a combination of advertising, price promotions and public relations. One goal is to capitalize on the residual fame of the brands by reminding older consumers who bought or remember them that they still exist.

"You want to go after the people who knew it," said Norman Needleman, president at Tower Laboratories in Essex, Conn., which is introducing the Bromo Seltzer campaign next week after buying the brand from its previous owner, Newmark Laboratories.

"We did some market research and found that the name recognition among consumers over 40, 45, is very high," said Needleman, whose company, which specializes in effervescent products, manufactured Bromo Seltzer for Newmark.

Another goal for those trying to bring back orphan brands is to pique the curiosity of younger consumers, particularly those looking for products from the past that they deem to have authentic heritage. Such consumers have helped start unlikely comebacks for bygone brands like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Indeed, the slightly rude nature of the "Bromo burp," to be featured in the brand's new television commercials, is intended to appeal to consumers for whom Bromo Seltzer is just a name on a clock tower in downtown Baltimore.

"We did some testing and the playback was very positive," said Albert S. Kestnbaum, president at Chestnut Communications in Greenwich, Conn., the Bromo Seltzer agency. "We've gotten a strong response from young men."

In addition to Bromo Seltzer, the ghost brands seeking second lives under new owners include once-familiar products like Aqua Net hair spray, Barbasol shaving cream, Close-Up toothpaste, Comet cleanser, Log Cabin syrup, Metrecal diet drinks, Niagara starch, Nuprin pain reliever, Prell shampoo and Swanson frozen foods.

This week, Procter & Gamble sold its Sure deodorant brand, introduced in 1973, to Innovative Brands, which is backed by a private investment firm, the Najafi Cos. Procter also sold most rights to another ghost brand, Pert Plus shampoo, to Innovative Brands in July.

Restoring life to ghost brands is often a daunting challenge, experts say.

"It's hit and miss; you might get 1 out of 4 to work," said Howard Draft, chairman and chief executive at Draft in Chicago, the direct marketing agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies.

In an era of using targeted media to aim pitches at specific shoppers -- a technique that works best when advertisers amass detailed data on customers -- "you have no consumer information on who bought the old brands," Draft said, "so it's hard to use the media cost effectively" to find the right consumers.

Another problem is distribution, Draft said, because the entrepreneurial new owners may not have the pull of the brands' previous owners, major marketers like Procter, to obtain the shelf space the products need.

Needleman said he was aware of the difficulties he faces in reviving Bromo Seltzer.

For one thing, he said, Tower has experience in distribution because other effervescent products it makes, sold under private labels as well as brand names like Shower Soothers, are stocked by "everyone: Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Rite Aid, Kroger, Safeway."

Also, Bromo Seltzer has been reformulated and repackaged to appeal to contemporary consumers, Needleman said: The traditional bottle containing the product in granulated form has been replaced with packets in packages.

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