Ads boost bean business

By Published on .

Round-faced, dimpled, mostly bald and sporting trusty spectacles, Jay Bush might have first seemed an unlikely ad spokesman. But when Bush Brothers & Co. conducted a family casting call to find its first advertising pitchman for Bush's Best Baked Beans, Jay, the now 37-year-old grandson of tomato cannery founder A.J. Bush, beat out his father, chairman-CEO Condon Bush, as well as his father's cousin, President-Chief Operating Officer Jim Ethier, and other members of the Tennessee clan.

It turned out to be a fortuitous choice. His down-home, unassuming air, slight lisp and a "talking" dog named Duke have helped vault the 83-year-old, fourth-generation family business from the No. 3 player into the lead spot in the baked beans category, with $240 million in sales. It now dwarfs even the largest of its large-scale competitors, ConAgra Foods and Campbell Soup Co.

It was a major decision for Bush, a sales-driven commoditized vegetable company, to advertise. When Jay, a plant manager in Shiocton, Wisc., began moonlighting as company frontman in 1993, little advertising had come from baked beans marketers. But since 1969, when young Condon Bush converted a well-loved recipe of his mother's into the canned Bush's Best Baked Beans, the family recipe had grown to No. 3 in the baked beans category. As the company's only differentiated line, it was chosen to represent the future of the family business.

Bush Bros. had to cast the net for marketing expertise wider than its own backyard high in the Smoky Mountains, and it lured Ron Dix, a veteran package-goods executive, as the company's first-ever director of marketing.

Mr. Dix set to work developing a first-time marketing strategy for Bush Brothers that included the creation of a traditional brand management team. To attract talented marketers from the bigger food companies such as Nestle, Campbell and Gerber, Bush Brothers moved its offices from the original family headquarters in Chestnut Hill, Tenn., to the larger metropolitan area of Knoxville.

Then came the casting call.

Jay was chosen "because he was someone who was non-threatening. Consumers didn't feel he was a guy in a three-piece suit and tie talking down to them, but rather was able to deliver the message in a `Hey, I'm a nice guy' kind of way," said Mr. Dix, now senior VP-director of marketing and sales.

`BEAUTIFUL BEAN FOOTAGE'

The ad formula hasn't changed significantly since 1993, when the first spot, from Cole Henderson Drake, Atlanta, featured Jay explaining to consumers what makes Bush's Best Baked Beans "taste so darned good." As the camera rolls what Jay calls "that beautiful bean footage," he offers that it's not just the specially cured bacon, fine brown sugar or delicate blend of spices that create the product's taste, but a secret family recipe he's shared with only one other soul-Duke, the friendly golden retriever. But when Jay confidently asserts that Duke's "not talkin'," the dog turns to the camera (much to Jay's dismay) and says plainly, "Roll that beautiful bean footage." The campaign first launched regionally then went national in 1994 "and has been like a rocket ship ever since," Mr. Dix said.

A new ad each year builds on the tension that Duke might give away the family secret-or sell it. In the third ad of the series, "Not for Sale," Duke sports a diamond-studded collar, clearly a bribe from an eager competitor. The ads have built a loyal following for the talking canine, who has been sold in Beanie Baby form and has made an appearance on "The Today Show," where Al Roker prompted him to utter the phrase, "Roll that beautiful bean footage."

Within a year of breaking the campaign, Bush Brothers took the lead in the under-marketed baked beans category, surpassing ConAgra's longtime leader Van Camp's and Campbell's eponymous brand. The effort nearly tripled Bush's share of the then $400 million segment, according to Mr. Dix.

While the creative didn't change, the agency did. In 1997, the account moved to Doner, Detroit, because, Mr. Dix said, "We had a falling out." Yet there are no hard feelings. "Bush Brothers was delightful to work with," said John Drake, Chairman-CEO of Cole Henderson.

Under Doner, the company has continued to play off the winning combination of Jay Bush, Duke and the beautiful bean footage to great results. While competitors' sales are dropping, Bush's sees double-digit increases annually and holds a 50% share of the $470 million baked beans category. The remainder is divided among Van Camp's with 24%; Campbell with 7.5%; private-label brands with 5.5%; and smaller players, according to Information Resources Inc.

Why is the combination so successful? According to Scott Lippitt, exec VP-management director at Doner, it's because "in today's day and age of conglomerates and faceless corporations, people like to put a face to the product and hold that face accountable."

To assure the homespun feel, Doner never allows Jay to become too polished, instead assuring that he appears as a "family member with heart," Mr. Lippitt said. In the tradition of Frank Perdue and Wendy's Dave Thomas, the agency goes so far as to include footage where the smiling Midwesterner flubs a line. That packaged reality is all part of Mr. Dix's grand scheme. "Consumers really feel like the Bush family cares more and that the product is better because of it. Part of that is truth, and part of that is advertising," Mr. Dix said.

However, asserts Dave Donaldson, brand manager for second-runner Van Camp's, Bush's real secret for success is not that it's family-owned-people neither know nor care about that, he said. Instead, the difference is its ad spending, which far outweighs its competitors in the category. Although Bush Brothers spent only $14 million on media in 1999, Van Camp's and Campbell's together spent less than $1 million.

"As a privately held company, they are only accountable to their family owners, while we're accountable to our shareholders," Mr. Donaldson offers as explanation for the discrepancy, which likely has been the reason for Bush's $125 million lead over Van Camp's. Marketing Partners, Irvine, Calif., handles marketing for Van Camp's. Campbell's does not currently advertise its beans.

Advertising is not the only weapon in Bush's arsenal. "Bush's is successful because they promote their beans through FSIs [free standing inserts], support our programs to maintain and keep distribution and they have a good bean," said one Midwestern retailer, who added that the beans represent 75% to 80% of baked beans sales in his market.

Whatever the reason for its success, Bush's certainly commands attention from its behemoth brethren. "We've had attacks by almost every company that owns a bean brand in the last seven or eight years," Mr. Dix said.

Van Camp's, which positions its own baked beans as America's Original Bean, even went so far as to carry a message on its packaging and in advertising last year that based on consumer taste testing, it "Beats Bush's 2 to 1."

Along with the attacks have come acquisition offers, Mr. Dix said, which immediately were rebuffed. "The family has very little motivation to maximize its short-term dollars by selling it to somebody else," he said. In fact, in a presentation to The Family Business Forum last May, 63-year-old Condon Bush said there is a clear succession plan that calls for the family to continue managing the business for a fifth generation. That is, if Duke doesn't get his way.

In this article:
Most Popular