A Brand New Life He has devoted his career to revitalizing forgotten products. Now Jeffrey Himmel moves to the hair-care aisle. Can he mend Breck's split ends?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Jeffrey Himmel is a scavenger entrepreneur. He searches through corporate trash bins, stores' bottom shelves, and consumers' fading memories, looking for old, neglected brands. When Himmel's done rummaging, he brings these products--long left for dead by their big-business masters--back to life. And he does it with a skeleton crew of just 36 people. Himmel's formula is deceptively simple: Flush the market with cheap ads that tug at people's memories. That game plan has worked wonders for Ovaltine and Gold Bond medicated powder, two once-marginal products that Himmel has rebuilt into major brands. For example: Under Himmel's parentage, Ovaltine has grown from a $13 million golden oldie into a $40 million hit. Today it commands 29% of the chocolate-drink-mix market, outperforming Hershey's syrup and trailing only Nestle's Nesquik. Now Himmel will test his formula--which has worked so well for niche products--in the hypercompetitive, $4 billion hair-care-products business. Remember the Breck shampoo girl? Himmel's bringing her back.
Forty-eight-year-old Jeffrey Himmel was literally born for this line of work. His father, Martin, created the niche of brand revival in 1960 when, as an out-of-work ad man in Union, N.J., he started his own marketing firm, Jeffrey Martin Inc. Martin's business plan was simple; believing that the key to success was heavy advertising, he poured half of his revenues back into marketing. In 1973, Martin bought Topol, "the smoker's tooth polish," for $200,000 from Shaller Rubin. By the early 1980s, Topol was bringing in $23 million in annual sales. In 1985, Martin doubled the sales of 83-year-old Lavoris mouthwash to $7 million in one year. Martin was so successful that the New York Times dubbed him "the man who turned dull brands to gold."
As a child, Jeffrey would tag along with his dad on business trips to everywhere from Caracas to Beverly Hills. But it wasn't until 1983, after almost a decade at Ernst & Young, that he joined the family business. Jeffrey brought with him a strong education, graduating from college at Wharton in three years and then earning his master's in taxation at night while working as an accountant. Still, his father insisted that he start at the bottom (he was exiled to investor relations, far from the core business) and work his way up.
In his first year, Jeffrey helped take the company public. When he was eventually granted control of the Doan's pills account, he grew sales more than $30 million in three years and turned Doan's into the market-leading cure for backache. In 1986 he helped sell the family business to the now defunct DEP Corp., a modest discount consumer-goods company, for $73 million. (The firm immediately stopped all national advertising. Now under scattered ownership, most of the brands have not maintained the level of success that they had achieved under Jeffrey Martin, analysts say.) Martin retired, and Jeffrey pursued investment banking until 1991, when his dad passed away. That same year, Jeffrey started the Himmel Group.
Growing up with Martin taught Jeffrey some important business lessons. As a kid, sitting in on appointments with media suppliers and distributors, he'd watch his father get shot down in one meeting only to enthusiastically face the next. The moral: Rejection is never the end. (It's a lesson that Jeffrey had to draw on in 1997, when Frito-Lay paid an estimated $50 million to outbid him in an attempt to buy Cracker Jack.) "You move on and keep looking," Jeffrey says. "The best is yet to come."
The optimistic Jeffrey, like another founder's son, has dreams of building the family business into an empire. "I'm just doing what Harley Procter did in 1881," he says, clearly in awe of the son of the P&G founder who cooked up Ivory Soap's name and built his father's business into a marketing powerhouse. "If you have the right product, and do the proper kind of advertising, the cash register is going to ring."
In the 11 years since the Himmel Group was launched, it has handled only five products (Gold Bond, Ovaltine, a motion-sickness medication called Marezine, antacid Bromo-Seltzer, and now Breck shampoo). Of course, Himmel's small staff can't handle a much faster pace--P&G probably employs 36 people just to choose paper-towel colors--but he also says he waits to find products with home-run potential. His definition: a brand that has a unique point of difference. Ovaltine is a good example--it's an acquired taste at best, and there's nothing else out there quite like it. (No one would mistake that jar of malt-flavored, good-for-you gravel with Hershey's cocoa powder.)
A unique product will, by definition, stand out from its competitors. So Himmel can spend his time reminding consumers that their favorite brand is still around, which he accomplishes by drawing on his father's damn-the-torpedoes advertising philosophy. "Frequency is our Holy Grail," says Jeffrey. The company creates all of its low-budget ads in-house, some for as little as $3,000. (This shouldn't surprise anyone who has ever seen the, um, simple spots. Those red pulsating arrows that symbolize back pain in Doan's ads, for instance, were Jeffrey's idea.) Instead, the small shop uses its money to buy ad time, usually late at night, when rates are cheapest.
The case of Gold Bond, the first product Himmel put in his portfolio, in 1991, reveals his philosophy in action. At the time, Gold Bond powder was a dowdy, regional brand with about $1 million in sales. But Himmel noticed something unique: Invented by the Rhode Island Medical Association in 1898, the product included menthol and zinc oxide to soothe skin. Gold Bond's history and medicinal qualities gave Himmel something to latch on to, and he used these attributes to position Gold Bond as a high-quality alternative to the run-of-the-mill talcum powders of the world. "There was no formula for powder better than what we had," he says. "You can't top medicated relief. We defined a whole new category."
In the years to come, Gold Bond would become a virtual gold mine. When Himmel learned from surveys that more than half of first-time customers had previously used Johnson & Johnson's baby powder, he introduced Gold Bond baby powder. Finding that most people used his powder to relieve foot itch, he changed his ads to emphasize itch relief; then, in 1993, he came out with Gold Bond medicated cream for itch, and Gold Bond foot powder. In 1994, just as generic varieties of Gold Bond started appearing on store shelves, Himmel kept a step ahead of the knockoffs and introduced an extra-strength formula. The extensions transformed Gold Bond into a $27 million business by 1995. Himmel sold Gold Bond a year later to Chattem Inc. for more than $40 million, having proved that a revitalized brand can have great potential. "I knew deep down that the Gold Bond story was more than one product," Himmel says.
Himmel repeated his success with the venerable Ovaltine, which he added to his stable in 1992. He immediately bombarded the airwaves with ads touting the forgotten chocolate mix as "the good-for-you drink that tastes great." As with all of his ads, the spots were cast with real customers--to add authenticity and cut costs--chosen from consumer-survey cards. He also brought back Ovaltine's trademark orange jar (this time in plastic) and slapped the word "classic" across the labels to remind people of the brand's heritage. It was attention the then 88-year-old brand hadn't enjoyed in a long time. In Himmel's first 100 days, sales doubled. That year, annual sales jumped from $13 million to $26 million.
Not all revamps have been so successful. In 1994, Himmel purchased Bromo-Seltzer from Warner-Lambert, promising that he could grow sales from $1.7 million to $50 million in five years. That proved impossible as consumers moved away from granular stomach remedies in favor of liquids and pills like Pepto-Bismol and Tums. Making matters worse, Bromo was more expensive to manufacture than its competitors, prompting Himmel's supplier to bail on the venture. Himmel was forced to return the Bromo license after just six months. Even so, Himmel points out that sales were on the rise when he sold the brand. "It wasn't so much a failure," he maintains, "but we lost money, probably."
Now, with Breck shampoo, which he purchased from Dial in July and plans to reintroduce to store shelves this spring, Himmel is leaving behind his longtime milieu of quirky orphan brands and moving into the mainstream. One look at Breck, and you can see why Himmel would find it attractive. It was America's first shampoo--created by John Breck in 1930 as a gentle alternative to bar soap, which he blamed for his hair loss--a fact that appeals to Himmel's sense of nostalgia. Supermodels like Brooke Shields and Christie Brinkley got their start as Breck girls, and for decades the brand--a salon staple--was synonymous with glamour. What's more, Dial just discovered the shampoo's original formula, and Himmel hopes this will restore many of the qualities, including the scent, that once made Breck the top shampoo in the country. (Neither Himmel nor Dial would disclose the financial terms of the deal. Himmel bought the licensing rights for the brand; Dial will continue to make it.)
Breck's long decline since its glory days can be blamed on mismanagement. The Breck girl was once an icon, as important to the brand as Nike's swoosh; today she boasts her own exhibit in the Smithsonian. But a revolving door of brand managers, eager to put their stamp on the aging brand, dumped the spokesmodel in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Breck introduced the "Breck woman." When that failed to take, they transformed her back into a "girl," then dumped her again. Confused? So were consumers. But even more damaging was the shampoo's positioning. In 1982, the once sophisticated Breck was reduced to a 99 cent discount brand. And when Dial bought the struggling shampoo in 1990 it immediately created 35 different brand extensions that diluted the name even further.
Himmel is convinced that the shampoo's problems are nothing that can't be solved with his brand-revival formula--lots of simple advertising that plays the nostalgia card. His first step: Bring back the Breck girls. Add in some retro packaging, and Himmel thinks he can win over baby-boomers to whom the brand still means something. Once he has reintroduced Breck to its original audience, Himmel will take on the more daunting task of developing a new following among younger consumers. Typically, he's optimistic. "I think we can build Breck into another Clairol," he says.
Branding experts say that with Breck, Himmel has pinpointed a perfect brand to revive. The Brand Lab, a University of Illinois think tank devoted to the study of resuscitating old brands, relies on five criteria to determine whether a product is ready for a successful comeback, including uniqueness and reputation (see box). Breck meets four of the five. Most important, the shampoo already boasts what marketing folks call "strong brand equity"--that is, customers remember the brand fondly. (True enough; seemingly every woman over the age of 35 smiles broadly when Breck's name is mentioned.) "Anyone can copy what someone else is doing," says Alan Bergstrom, head of the Brand Consultancy. "But what they can't copy is the brand relationship."
Still, it is a different world now from when Breck was a top seller. "You walk down those aisles, and you don't see a lot of space waiting for Breck shampoo," says Jack Trout, a consumer-goods analyst and head of Trout & Partners. The airwaves are similarly stuffed with celebrity-heavy shampoo ads.
Himmel is willing to be patient. He predicts the revival will take at least a year. That might not sound very long, but Himmel measures his achievements against his 100-day turnaround of Ovaltine. By that standard, a year is an eternity. Then again, Himmel is out for more than financial success, and his conviction may make the wait a bit easier. When he talks about his career, it sounds like a good-will mission, saving products from the dustbin of history. "I just think it is tragic," he says, shaking his head, "when brands fade."