BELTONE SEES BIG MARKET IN GRAYING BABY BOOMER: HEARING AID MAKER SETS MAY START FOR ADS TO BOOST BUYER AWARENESS

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For most folks, hearing aids conjure up images of a senior citizen with a contraption in his or her ear. To Beltone Electronics Corp., they conjure images of a vast market just waiting to be tapped.

In May, Beltone will launch an estimated $3 million ad campaign to boost not only brand awareness but overall consumer spending on hearing aids. It's part of the marketer's larger strategy to improve the image of the product-and those who wear them.

DESTIGMATIZE

"We need to destigmatize hearing devices," said Barbara VanSomeren, director of business communications at Beltone. Hearing loss "is totally natural and taking care of it should be a lifestyle health issue."

The ads will include 15- and 30-second spots from Euro RSCG Tatham, Chicago, which Beltone named last week as its first outside agency since 1995. Commercials are expected to focus on the "sounds of life" that shouldn't be missed, such as children speaking or waterfalls flowing.

A national print campaign will follow.

Industry figures show 6 million Americans use hearing aids, while an additional 6 million could benefit from one. The Hearing Industries Association said the number of potential customers is expected to grow as millions of rock-concert-raised baby boomers get older.

"This is a great growth business and a great growth industry," said Michael Cannizzaro, Beltone's president-CEO.

FASHION-CONSCIOUS

The company hopes to grow the market by catering to fashion-conscious consumers. In recent years, hearing devices have become small enough to be hidden inside the ear canal. Meanwhile, marketers also have made technological strides with the invention of programmable and digital devices.

Beltone estimates the hearing-device market at $1.6 billion, and it estimates it holds 8% of the fragmented market, behind leaders Starkey Laboratories (with 25%) and Siemens Hearing Instruments (with 11%).

A CREATIVE DEPARTURE

Beltone's brand-awareness campaign marks a departure from its traditional product-oriented ad approach. In recent years, internally produced ads have promoted Beltone's latest technology, from the fit-inside-your-ear size of some of its devices to how well they can improve hearing clarity.

It now is trying to position itself also as a follow-up care provider, available at its network of 2,600 authorized hearing-care centers across the country.

Much of Beltone's new assertiveness-the privately held company has a new logo and slogan, and plans call for an increased ad budget for its next fiscal year-is due to the 50-year-old Mr. Cannizzaro, installed by venture capitalist J.W. Childs Associates last year.

Childs bought Beltone in 1997 for a reported $115.5 million from the Posen

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