NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Once upon a time, mints were inconsequential heralds that a meal had come to an end, a fleeting brush with freshness. All that changed when the red-and-white tin became a status symbol filled with "the original celebrated" curiously strong peppermints.
Americans are reaching for breath mints in record numbers, and Altoids brand in particular confounds observers, not only for its ferocious taste but for the devotion of its aficionados. Talk show hostess Rosie O'Donnell hands them out religiously [1.1M Quicktime movie] and even business people will take time out of their busy schedules to extol the brand's virtues.
"They come in this very attractive box. It's easy to pass around," said Amoco attorney Bob Stout. "People are comfortable -- where (with) say a roll of mints, they feel kind of funny peeling off the paper and they don't know where it's been. You can keep them in the box and people feel very comfortable taking one."
The brand is so powerful it's even the subject of a particularly lurid urban legend of sorts that, according to the Starr Report, Monica Lewinsky was eager to try out on the U.S. president. But what's an Altoid, beyond a powdery white pastille mostly composed of sugar, water and a lot of flavoring?
"It's a strong mint obviously," said Lisbeth Echeandia of Confector Magazine. "It's one of the strong mint categories."
And a strong history. Made in Britain by Callard & Bowser Suchard -- confectioners to the Crown -- Altoids peppermints have been around for 200 years and have been sold in the United States since before the American Revolution..
But it's only been in the last six years that the company has really stepped up its marketing campaign.
"We focus very clearly on two things. Firstly, to try and insure that Altoids is as widely available where consumers expect to buy mints as possible," said Mark Sugden of Callard & Bowser Suchard. "And secondly, to insure that as many people as possible know that Altoids exist."
Guerrilla marketing has been the company's chosen method of getting the word out. Callard & Bowser goes into targeted areas and rolls out billboards and print ads that analysts say work well because they are irreverent and very focused.
"They could have taken the 'history' slant of it. They could have taken a 'homemade' slant of it. They just went for 'strong,' " said Echeandia. "You know, the mint's so strong it has to be in a metal box."
Sales have been so strong that an independent marketing firm says Altoids is No. 1 in the extra-strength breath mint category, although the brand is still ranked only fourth overall for all mints.
Although Philip Morris (MO), which owns the British mint maker, does not break out numbers for Altoids, Callard & Bowser acknowledges selling over 40 million of the $2 tins last year.
"What I can say is over the last five or six years Altoids sales have increased on average by 40 percent year-on-year," said Sugden.
Year-over-year sales driven by brand loyalty that sometimes more closely resembles addiction. Stout explained that he was first introduced to Altoids by a friend, and then over the next few months he became "very interested" in them, "having them regularly" [157K WAV] [157K AIFF].
Analysts are hard pressed to find a serious downside for Altoids. Even if no one can really explain the mints' appeal, they say as long as the confectioner can continue to get its quirky message out, Altoids are likely to keep making a mint.
There is, however, the problem with Altoids dust.
"Not a good product to eat if you're wearing a dark suit, because of the dust," said Echeandia. "It really is a bit of a problem. But that's about it."