Calgon, take me away … again

Baltimore firm buys bath products out of bankruptcy and relaunches the brand

  • Robert W. Bailey, president and CEO, left, and Bernard Kropfelder, EVP Sales & Marketing, pose in Ilex Consumer Products Group's sample room in the company's headquarters in the Warehouse at Camden Yards.
Robert W. Bailey, president and CEO, left, and Bernard Kropfelder,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
June 21, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

"Calgon, take me away" became the catchphrase for stressed-out people everywhere during an advertising blitz for the bath products in the 1970s and 1980s.

Commercials featuring haggard moms escaping to soothing bubble baths seemed to resonate with anyone who ever had a bad day. Even as the products slipped in popularity, the slogan continued to span generations of pop culture as musicians from Mariah Carey to Snoop Dogg sampled it in songs and TV shows used it as a punch line.

Now, a Baltimore private equity firm hopes to make Calgon bath and lotion products once again as well-known as the iconic name itself.

Ilex Capital in Annapolis brought the brand out of bankruptcy in 2008 through a $4.2 million deal in which the firm purchased the rights to the name and the products, but not assets such as manufacturing facilities.

After a year spent revamping everything from bottle designs to product scents, Ilex began relaunching the Calgon brand this spring and recently negotiated more shelf space for Calgon at Walmart, the world's largest retailer.

"We wanted to bring it into our system and breathe some new life into it," said Bernard R. Kropfelder, executive vice president of sales and marketing of Ilex Consumer Products Group LLC, the Baltimore-based arm of Ilex that runs Calgon.

Total sales in body and hand soap reached $49.9 billion last year and are expected to reach $50.8 billion this year, according to research firm IBISWorld USA, which tracks consumer products.

The bath and body market is more competitive than ever. Stores like Bath and Body Works and the Body Shop specialize in the products, while big box stores such as Target are offering their own private label body and hand washes.

Rebranding is a good way to get a soap product noticed, as there is not a lot of room for advances in the product, said Sophia Snyder, an analyst with IBISWorld USA.

"Calgon does have a lot of brand equity, and that is the idea of rebranding, holding onto the brand name but broadening the appeal," Snyder said.

Ilex, founded just a few years ago, looks to revive well-known brands that executives determine haven't gotten enough marketing and development investment to sell at their highest potential. The company also owns the Healing Garden brand of bath products and Gourmet Express, a manufacturer of frozen foods.

The firm was started by Joseph Matthews, a former partner at investment banking firm Clearview Partners, and Rick Foster, a former executive at Baltimore media company Lightningcast Inc., which was bought by AOL in 2006. The two men financed the Calgon deal through their personal money and bank financing.

Calgon fits the firm's investment formula perfectly.

Calgon had changed ownership several times in the past decade, giving it an identity crisis of sorts. One owner even discarded the "take me away" slogan only to have a new owner bring it back a few years later.

The most recent owners, New Jersey-based Ascendia Brands, had grown rapidly earlier this decade, scooping up beauty companies when the economy was booming and credit free-flowing.

Ascendia, which also owned the Mr. Bubble and Baby Magic brands, found it couldn't afford to reinvest in the brands when the recession hit. A drop in sales of some products made matters worse, and Ascendia began auctioning off brands. That's when Ilex stepped in to buy Calgon.

Calgon wasn't always known for its fragranced soaps and lotions. When it started in 1933, it sold one product, a water softener that when combined with calcium reduced unwanted salt in the water. Its name was a combination of the phrase "calcium gone." That product had its own famous slogan in TV commercials: "Ancient Chinese secret." It's now owned by another company.

Calgon introduced its first bath products in the 1940s, but it was the "Take Me Away" campaign that really put Calgon on the map in the 1970s.

When Ilex took over the company, it conducted a consumer survey that found what executives already thought they knew. Almost all respondents had heard about Calgon, but not everyone was inspired to buy the Calgon lotions, bath salts and other products.

So the company began looking at ways to improve the product.

Company officials spent the past two years changing the formula of the lotion to make it thicker. They got rid of some flavors, such as green apple and peach blossom, and created new ones they think are more in tune with the times, such as Moon Petal Musk.

The company also is introducing 30 new products, such as a line of mineral salts and epsom salts, a "2-in-1" shower gel and bubble bath, and a line of body creams.

Along with the new products, Ilex also adopted a business strategy for Calgon. Rather than manufacturing the products, the company contracts out the production. By cutting those costs, Ilex can spend more money on marketing Calgon, said Kropfelder, the sales and marketing executive.

"Calgon has great potential," Kropfelder said. "We just have to remind people about what makes it so good."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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