Glenview, Ill.-based SCA specializes in distributing goody bags stuffed with samples, coupons and educational pamphlets to schools nationwide.
The method allows the company to reach a select percentage of families with children-a demographic coveted by marketers of such products as soaps, cookies, candies, shampoos and cereals.
Yet, SCA treads on risky turf in that parents or school officials may decide the program taints education with business.
Nevertheless, the "inherent benefits" of marketing through schools far outweigh the risks, said SCA President Steven Kaplan.
"There is an implied endorsement from a trusted institution," he said. "There's a lot of credibility attached to that."
And there are also responsibilities inherent in promoting products in schools, Mr. Kaplan said, adding, "We have to be real careful not to exploit our relationship with the schools."
The sample bags are distributed to students and parents at events such as open houses, kindergarten orientations, health classes and graduations.
Schools receive no payment for allowing the products to be distributed. Procter & Gamble Co. is one big participant in the program, having included samples for such brands as Tide laundry detergent, Ivory soap and Downy fabric softener.
A packet for junior high school students, a group for whom haircare takes top priority, includes P&G's Vidal Sassoon products, for example.
Sample bags also include "how-to" information packets aimed at specific grade levels or age groups. Packets for teens are accompanied by literature about changes that age group faces, how to deal with conflict and where troubled teens can go for support.
The informational materials are created in-house, using outside specialists to write on special topics.
Information for older students centers on job seeking-resume writing and interview skills, for example. Samples in that packet include P&G's Coast soap and Pantene shampoo.
It's a "waste-free" marketing approach, Mr. Kaplan said.
"If your target market is households with kids and we go to an open house, 100% of the people are living in households with kids," he explained. "You don't have to deliver 8 million to reach 5 million of your target."
SCA is a small company (only 12 full-time employees) with a big reach. In 1994, it distributed some 110 million samples to 76,000 schools nationwide.
Market penetration is 50% of parents with a child in daycare, 70% of parents with a child in kindergarten, 72% of parents with a child in elementary school and 70% of teens in junior high and high school, Mr. Kaplan said.
SCA's massive distribution of millions of samples each year is handled by outside contractors in more than 100 satellite facilities nationwide that pack and ship the company's materials.
About 40 companies, including giants such as General Mills and Hershey Foods Corp., as well as P&G, use SCA.
Keebler Co. last spring used a sampling campaign to boost awareness of its chocolate graham crackers, said Jim Whittle, a Keebler group product manager. The school sampling turned out to be efficient as well as effective, he said.
"Keebler doesn't have money in its budget to blitz the entire country," Mr. Whittle said. "This is a way to hone in on the buyer and not waste samples with the wrong people."
However, introducing product information into schools is a very sensitive issue, as evidenced by recent controversies over the in-school use of educational videos that include commercial messages.
Some schools ban any programs connected to products, including SCA samples, Mr. Kaplan said. "We don't get every school," he said. "We get 70%, but there are 30% we don't get."
Appearing to endorse a product was a concern when Fairborn High School in Dayton, Ohio, considered permitting SCA to distribute packets to its students, said Assistant Principal Bob Hartley.
After three years in the program, however, the school has yet to get one complaint about the samples.
Despite the risk, "if there's an overall education benefit to the school, we'll do it," Mr. Hartley said. Ms. Carlstone is a reporter for Crain's Small Business.