Barbara K.: Do-it-yourself diva tools up marketing

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As Martha Stewart's role at her company diminishes, the mug and lifestyle mantra of another working-class blonde-made-good is expanding. Bronx-born Barbara Kavovit, former head of New York-based Anchor Construction turned founder-CEO of Barbara K. Enterprises, is muscling her way into consumers' homes.

Barbara K. Enterprises, founded in 2002, sells tool kits, from a 30-piece do-it-yourself line that includes basics such as a claw hammer and a 2-in-1 level, all ergonomically designed to fit women's hands, to more specialized arrangements like the picture-hanging kit and dorm-room survival kit.

Stocked in 5,000 stores across the U.S.-from department stores such as Bloomingdale's and J.C. Penney; on shelves of hardware stores, including Ace; or home-improvement centers like Home Depot-Barbara K. products are "not just tools," Ms. Kavovit said. "They provide solutions to women. I believe that when you make your home look beautiful, you make yourself look beautiful."


A full-fledged media onslaught conveying that message is in the making. It began in mid 2003, with a public relations program about the popularity of do-it-yourself home improvement that landed Barbara K. toolkits on the pages of shelter and women's magazines. A $1.5 million print and TV campaign from McCaffery Ratner Gottlieb & Lane, New York, launched in last year's fourth quarter; for 2004, media spending will increase to $3.2 million.

"This is ingenious on one level," said Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture, Syracuse University. "Barbara K. is tapping into something that is deep in the American soul." Long ago, he notes, the road to salvation was to focus on fixing one's soul and mind. "Today's idea is fix your house and you'll fix your happiness. If Ben Franklin were alive today, he'd be managing a line of Container Stores," he said. Still, he notes that the market is crowded with do-it-yourself-diva aspirants.

Her agents at William Morris Agency wrangled a multibook deal unveiled March 16 with publisher Rodale; the first book is due next spring. In the works, said Ken Slotnick, agent, William Morris Agency, are licensing and TV deals: "We are actively shopping a TV show for both syndication and cable," he said.

Branding expert Suzanne Hogan, senior partner, design-and-brand consultancy Lippincott Mercer, calls Barbara K.'s "self-improvement and self-sufficiency good brand essence." To avoid expanding too far, too fast-a pitfall particularly common for young brands-Ms. Hogan recommends Barbara K. "stay focused on one very simple thing. Any brand extension should remain with the idea of helping women expand their capabilities and not fit into stereotypes."

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