Sunday, December 30, 2007

Triscuit® Romance

A new print ad for Triscuit ‘Rosemary & Olive Oil’ crackers caught my attention and amusement – it’s hard to make out the headline in this scan, so I’ll quote it for you to read:

Jessica opened her box of Rosemary & Olive Oil Triscuit crackers. The aroma instantly transported her to the countryside. One bite, and she’d finally found the complexity and flavor she craved, a combination sadly missing from the pretty boy in the ascot.

This is classy and sassy – just the thing for a brand that’s under reconstruction – and beautifully targeted to its audience. You’d hardly think this cracker is more than 100 years old. You can read even more about the cracker itself here.

But the story is never so simple as that. When you Google “Triscuit,” you’ll discover that in the past year, the brand has been at the center of some remarkable upsets in the ad biz, as well as the subject of dozens of blog posts (like here and here).

Writing in The New York Times last April, Stuart Elliott broke the story that Kraft Foods was unhappy with its biggest ad agency, JWT, and showed its displeasure by shifting six brands (worth $160+ millions) to other agencies. That’s put the hurt on JWT big-time.

It looks like the Triscuit business, worth about $12.8 millions, ended up at Euro RSCG in New York, along with the Ritz cracker assignment ($32.1 millions).

Some dissatisfaction has been expressed about Kraft North America’s customer service. Freshbooks’ blogger also noted, “Nabisco has not domain-proofed their brand by buying” This was back in April; now you can, in fact, type in and go right to a micro-site for the brand.

Meanwhile, new Triscuit flavors have been very popular with consumers, with lots of positive comments (e.g.,

Back to the ad itself, which bears a 2008 copyright. I’d led by this to conclude that the ad is from Euro RSCG and my hat’s off to the creative team. Yes, I know it’s quite popular to slam guys – but for the women in the audience, this execution is laugh-worthy.

I also compliment the team on the human touches which put this ad “in contact” with the audience: a lovely woman but no stick figure, a certain dreamy quality to the execution, reinforced by the tagline, “A tasty romance awaits.”

I expect I’ll be old(er) and gray(er) before I see this kind of advertising for, say, oilfield technology. Try as I might, I can’t ever see any E&P company going with a headline like:

Ray-Bob opened the carton with his new CX-370A drill bit inside. The fresh oil covering the layers of its diamond cutters instantly recalled his glory days on the rig floor – he knew he’d finally found the penetration and the sheer power missing from his life since Norma’d left him for that landman in Lafayette.

Ah, well. There’s always the Triscuits.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Gifts: Armaments

The newspapers are filled with ads for very expensive watches (if you’re a guy) and the latest celebrity brand perfumes (if you’re a gal). The airwaves offer big-screen TVs and iPods.

‘Tis the Season to be buying. If you’re buying big, Neiman Marcus offers its 100th Anniversary Fantasy Gift: An Imperial Lilies of the Valley Fabergé Egg for $3,525 (including shipping).

But what to do if you are confronted on Christmas Day by a Rabbit with Big Pointy Teeth? (This is what comes of watching “Monty Python & The Holy Grail,” a seasonal favorite.)

The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch is available for only $17.95 – an important reminder that comes to us from geek blogs. This plush version comes with critical instructions:

First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be three. Four thou shalt not count, nor either count though two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest though thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch toward thou foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

This is the stuff of legends, friend, even though this model “does not really light up or explode.” Well.

Go up-market if you like to the 50-caliber Barrett M82A1 sniper rifle for something over $8,000 – it puts the Fabergé egg in the shade and offers “unmatched respect.” I kinda like that. This is NOT something you’re likely to see advertised in a pre-Christmas Valassis insert. Think of it as a 30-pound stalking stuffer.

Quite a bit more stress-y on the Visa card, The Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) may or may not be available in time for Christmas; it depends on the success of its testing program. Lockheed Martin promises superior performance and affordable price – plus videos if you visit the company’s on-line shopping site.

Me? I’ll settle for the Holy Hand Grenade. Just the thing for a Big-Pointy-Teeth-Rabbit-free holiday season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Joyful Year

Thanks to you, I had a ball this year. What Charles Dickens wrote in “A Christmas Carol” is as true for me as he’d have it for the story’s main character:

…He was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins…and that was quite enough for him.

A year’s worth of joy should not be saved up ‘til Christmas. Fortunately, some of you have kept up with news and adventures in my business, my family, my life. So it’s likely that you’ve seen your names a time or two (or more) throughout the past 12 months and received my gratitude along with it.

It’s time to say “Thank you,” plus sincere greetings for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – and everything else you celebrate during this month.

Because you’ve been part of it, you have contributed so much to me and my family. You are my colleagues, my partners, my friends. I am grateful for the work, the relationships, the collegial enjoyment of many hours spent with you.

You are the ornaments of my life. Best wishes for a world full of joy this season and for the year ahead.

Thanks and special wishes to Prism Design for this year’s illustration.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Risotto Report

Our on-the-scene reporter, Rachel Baron, sends: Here are a couple of photos from the contest. Alison looks super cute…I am excited to see the blog. Thanks for being so supportive. By the way, Alison did receive two tickets to “Les Misérables” and a $50 gift certificate to Quick Chek. And has big plans about how to win next year.

No word on the recipe. Same with after-action PR from Quick Chek. “Maybe tomorrow…”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Souper Chef

The promotions that occur out of sight – in different regions of the country or other parts of the world – sometimes come into view thanks to relatives. This morning, Alison Bond (friend of Rachel Baron) is participating in the Quick Chek “Souper Chef” finals at the company’s South Plainfield, NJ store.

Quick Chek is a family-owned and -operated chain of 110 retail food store locations that operates mainly in the northern part of the state. Founder Carlton C Durling started it in the 1960s as an outlet for the milk from his dairy business.

That’s one way to begin a convenience-store operation – especially since Quick Chek didn’t start putting in “fueling islands” (that’s gasoline pumps to you) ‘til 2000. In 2006, the overall growth of the C-store industry was 15%. But that same year showed a 23.5% drop in profits, because of shrinking margins on gasoline and higher credit card costs (also associated with gas sales). So [a] Quick Chek’s slow movement toward adding pumps is probably a good thing for its profitability; and [b] its concentration on fresh food is critical to maintaining strong customer relationships.

Unlike the Stripes chain I blogged about in September, Quick Chek promotions seem to be more tightly tied to its products. The winter promotion is based on its fresh soups. It’s been well-advertised in the North Jersey, but there’s nothing about it on the company website. I’d say Quick Chek missed a bet, but not by much given the participation reported by our own team: Alison (chef) and Rachel (supporter).

In her “Food for Thought” blog, Angela Wyatt already noted: If you think you have a soup recipe that’s worth prizes valued up to $750, share it with Quick Chek. Starting today through Dec. 5, Quick Chek customers will have the chance to put their culinary skills to the test by submitting an original recipe that incorporates one of Quick Chek’s 14 fall menu soups as an ingredient to the company's first ever Quick Chek Souper Chef Cooking Contest.

Unfortunately, I have to report that Alison’s recipe, using the chain’s Roasted Tomato & Garlic soup as a basis for a risotto, did not bear away the bell. As a runner-up, Alison received a $50 Quick Chek gift certificate.

But she got chosen as a semi-finalist (out of 65 entrants in the month-long promo period) and had the chance to prepare her “Roasted Tomato and Spinach Risotto” to compete against four other contestants and their recipes on site. The event was previewed in today’s Bridgewater, NJ, Courier-News.

A soup-powered promo for a C-store makes a nice change from the ordinary gas and credit card activities. Quick Chek’s PR people ought to be able to get some winter-time mileage out of this

I also hope Alison will share her recipe with Signalwriter’s readers. More of this anon.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Pearl Morning

“Inside one hangar twenty-one Hawaiians were fighting fire. Planes roared hoarsely, machine guns stuttered overhead. In the middle of the smoke-filled hangar, Solomon Naauao, 245-pound athlete, trained the water from his fire-hose on the fuselage of a four-motor flying fortress, pushing back the gasoline fire that leaped out from the fuselage onto the wings.

“Solomon is a giant Hawaiian, a true son of a warrior. Short, thick, black hair fits his massive head like a fur cap. He was hoping the Chief would come soon with the foamite. Water was not much good against gasoline.

“One end of the burning hangar fell through to the floor, revealing a sky dotted with three approaching Japanese bombers. They were flying just a few feet above the hangar. The first one passed directly above Solomon and his fellow-fighters. Solomon heard an explosion and felt hot pain.

“‘Lord help me!’ he prayed, falling to the concrete floor. The whole inner side of his right leg was blown away.

“With his arm and sound leg he crawled through the smoke, away from the flames. When two soldiers picked him up, he learned that five others with him had been wounded, three more blown to pieces. They left him in the doorway to wait for the ambulance just coming in. As he lay there, Japanese planes flew slowly above, just clearing the hangar, and strafed the men running to carry him to the ambulance. Others quickly picked him up and sped him to the hospital.”

From Remember Pearl Harbor, copyright 1942 by Blake Clark. Of the Honolulu Fire Department personnel fighting the fires at Hickam Field that Sunday morning, Capt Thomas S Macy, Capt John Carreira and Hoseman Harry Tuck Lee Pang were dead. Lieutenant Frederick Kealoa and Hoseman Moses Kalilikani were critically wounded; and three others – Hoseman John A Gilman, Solomon H Naauao, Jr, and George Corren – were also injured. The wounded firefighters received Purple Hearts. From 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story, pages 160-161. See also today’s California Fire News blog.

Poster designed by Allen Sandburg, issued by the Office of War Information, Washington, D.C., in 1942, in remembrance of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Wobble Tales

After blogging about Wobble Wedges®, I had the chance to talk with their creator, Robert Bellows. Here’s such a marvelous story about small-business triumph, I asked him if he’d write about it. He agreed to do it in the form of lengthy answers to six questions.

It’s a long read; I haven’t edited it much. Bellows said, “I had a great time looking back at the magical evolution of the Wobble Wedge.” See if you agree.

1. What made you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

I never decided to become an entrepreneur in the start-a-business-and-sell-it-for-millions mold. Perhaps I’m an entrepreneur in the sense that my work choices have been consistently driven by a deep desire to explore the realms of my own creativity while maintaining independence, the most precious resource of all.

The trick, of course, was getting paid in the process. If the business earned millions or if it earned just enough cash or somewhere in between that would be fine. Following that path by both intent and accident I have been a school teacher, carpenter, ranch hand, welder, tutor, artist, copywriter, publicist and a marketing/sales director in several businesses.

So how did Wobble Wedge come about? In my early 40s, I lost a business that I had expected to pursue for many more years. The demise of the business came from multiple forces much larger than our small company could counteract. To be frank, I was disillusioned by what came down. Taking a total break from business was the perfect solution. In the following months I began introducing myself to the world as an artist.

Over the next few years I made well over 100 sculptures and sold them through galleries and shows – a good living and a total blast. But the cash flow came in an uncomfortable boom and bust cycle. My business head popped and said, “Hey, why not start a really small business that will provide a steady cash flow but won’t require much daily office work?” That was the seed that sprouted into the Wobble Wedge.

2. How did you decide on the wedge? And what steps led to its engineered qualities?

For as long as I can remember I have always had a scrappy-looking 3-ring binder titled “Ideas.” Every time I had a business or product idea I had a habit of writing it down in the notebook: ideas of who needed the thing, who might buy it, and what it might take to make it and what it would take to distribute it.

Then reality would set in. Do I want to sit at a desk, manage a pile of employees, raise money, be responsible to bankers or shareholders, manage field reps and on and on? The answer was no….already done that. The ideas that required complex marketing and production were fun to dream about. The mere act of writing it down allowed to me let go of the idea so a new one could come in.

The question gradually changed from, “What business could I create that would be successful?” to something more like, “What business will support what I want to do with my time?”

What did I want? Simplicity. The product had to be simple. It had to be easy to understand. It had to be universally needed. It had to be cheap to make and cheap to buy. It had to be well made and very cool. It had to be fun to sell. And most of all, it had to have a “Wow, I wish I had thought of that!” factor.

How could I find that? Simple again. State the question as clearly as possible then forget about it.

One day, sitting at an annoying wobbly restaurant table, my wife (Terry Cohen) asked the magical question: “Think you could figure out how to fix this?” Whoa, that ain’t rocket science, it’s not even high school algebra.

All it takes is a small wedge. It could be used for all sorts of things...wait, that’s it: this is what we need to invent.

The first wedges were hand carved from a plastic block and from scraps of wood. I used my funky models for everything I could think of from stabilizing wobbly tables to leveling fountain sculptures.

Experimenting with them made it obvious that each wedge had to relate to the other...they had to nest to prevent slippage. They had to be stackable to fill large gaps. They had to be easy to trim. They had to be easy to retrieve even if they were inserted too far.

I showed my hand-carved wedges to an 80-year-old tool maker that had been making injection molds for years. With my samples in hand and a few pencil sketches he began machining some very precise samples. A few models later we had a perfectly simple but very functional design.

3. Would you expand on the (years’ long) marketing efforts you put into the product?

In the original vision, the product had to be “universally understood.” To be honest I didn’t know the full meaning of those words at the time. But their meaning is clear now. If anyone sees a Wobble Wedge, it takes only a fraction of a second for them to say, “I know where I could use one of these.”

We create literature, but really Wobble Wedges don’t need explanation. As such we didn’t have to go to the hefty expense of trying to educate or convince people to buy these.

Instead, we had the less expensive task of just letting them know that at long last here was a solution that they had been looking for all their life: handing a consumer, a contractor or a restaurant owner a couple of Wobble Wedges is in itself a complete marketing message.

Our primary marketing message is that Wobble Wedges are universally needed. That statement generated this line: Everyone needs Wobble Wedges. Now we needed to simply remind consumers of why they need Wobble Wedges. Everyone knows that most things are far from plumb, smooth or level. Everyone knows that almost nothing in the world is truly flat. So, why not just say what they already know. Hence the line: Because the World Still Isn’t Flat.

4. How critical is the “Wobble Wedge” brand name to your marketing efforts?

Wobble Wedge is a fantastic named coined by my brother Warren. The beauty of the name is again its simplicity. It describes the problem and the solution in one very memorable name. But even more than that, the name allows for universal application. It is not limiting in any way.

A contractor can relate to a Wobble Wedge as quickly as a waiter can. If we had called the product a Stable Table, for example, we would only appeal to restaurants. Contractors would have nothing to do with it.

So yes, Wobble Wedge is and excellent name, but not absolutely critical to the success of the product. We sell Wobble Wedges under many names targeted to many very specific markets. Our brand name is well known, but the quality, superior functionality, and readily available inventory of our Wobble Wedges is what keeps us in the game.

While we stimulated many PR stories for Wobble Wedges in the early years, the product itself stimulates its own story now. You see one, hit yourself on the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Then someone like you writes a blog about it. That is the magic of Wobble Wedge.

5. The Wobble Wedge solves for a specific kind of problem. But Focus 12 itself doesn’t seem to have a problem now. If, after 20 years, you were asked what problem the company itself faces, what would that problem be?

Our Mom & Pop business is doing great. It is small and simple as we created it to be. It has provided very well for us. At this moment, we it looks like we’re going into a very exciting period of growth. That growth is already bringing in a level of complexity in our business that is taxing our small staff….that’s just Terry and I.

We have new products and new molds and new customers that will drive a whole new part of our business. But the coming complexity challenges our core mandate of simplicity. Both of us are getting older. As much as we love our business, we’re beginning to think of other things we’d like to do. Maybe a bigger business isn’t what we want. Maybe it is.

We’re still working on that question. Perhaps writing this response to your questions will stimulate that process. It is always amazing to me how we touch each other’s lives.

6. Last question: do you read Mother Earth News?

Yes, I was sort of an idealist. Perhaps that has eroded with time. It’s funny that you mention it. I haven’t seen that mag in years. Last month my wife brought one home to show me an article on gardening. Gardening sounds good to me these days. There is nothing like dirt under your fingernails and a freshly picked tomato to remind you of what is real.

Good storytellers are few and far between. Thanks to Robert Bellows for sharing this one. And for the fun of it, get your hands on a Wobble Wedge.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hanukkah Truckin’

I was set to blog best wishes for Hanukkah – simple, straightforward, sincere. But I ran across the Disney “Fire Truck Menorah” in one of Barbara’s catalogs and it threw me off track. The bizarre idea that Mickey Mouse may be Jewish after all, circumsized at birth in 1928, has taken on a life of its own. At 79, I’d say he’s a little old to be driving around on a hook-and-ladder but maybe not. It’s said that 70’s the new 50, etc. And he’s got the other alte kochers with him: Minnie, Goofy. Donald. Even Pluto.

This is the first night of Hanukkah, during which we celebrate a successful rebellion. (Another curious fact, in this day and time.) A small, outnumbered band of Jews waged battle against the armies of the Seleucid Greeks, and drove them out of the Land of Israel.

When the Jews reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they wanted to re-light the Temple’s menorah, but the priests discovered that the Greeks had contaminated almost all the oil. There was just enough pure oil to last one night – and it would take eight days to produce new, pure oil.

Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted eight days and nights. The holiday of Hanukkah was established. So we commemorate and publicize this miracle by lighting our own menorahs on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah – adding another candle every evening.

On the other hand, what if one of the younger Jewish insurgents came running into the Temple back in 166 BC, crying out to the Levites, “Wait! I just got this FedEx from Mama in Brooklyn!”

In one hand, he’s waving this Disney fire truck menorah; in the other is a box of Hanukkah candles from the Discount Candle Shop. “We can use these until the oil is ready.” History could have been changed at that very moment – the miracle would have been getting anything FedEx’d to Israel in time for Hanukkah. That’d be truckin’.

Tonight’s the beginning, whatever menorah you use. I wish you all hag orim same'ah. Happy Feast of Lights! Happy Hanukkah!