Bush's Duke Now Selling Secret Bean Recipe on Facebook

Category Leader Looks to Grow With Doggie-Based Social-Media Push

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Nothing says austerity like a can of beans, which is partly why baked-bean sales took off when the economy cratered in 2008. But as the summer grilling season kicks into gear, bean sales show signs of softening again.

Sales grew just 1.43% in the year ending April 17, according to SymphonyIRI. That compares with the 10.4% uptick in 2008 and 9.2% gain in 2009 that market researcher Mintel said the category enjoyed. Mintel predicted the slowdown in a report last year, noting that beans might lose steam once the economy improves.

Market leader Bush Brothers & Co. is hoping to keep consumers interested with a campaign that puts a new twist on an old company fable. It goes like this: Jay Bush, great grandson of company founder A.J. Bush, more than 15 years ago told the family's secret baked-bean recipe to a golden retriever named Duke, who's been trying to sell the recipe ever since. The company has now brought the story to Facebook, where the dog is inviting fans to make offers online. The campaign is by Columbus, Ohio-based Resource Interactive, which also created a TV ad.

"Our fans love Duke," said brand manager Ken Oakley, so the campaign seeks to use Duke "to engage them even more."

And while the tale might lack the mystique of other secret-recipe narratives -- like Coca-Cola's formula locked in an Atlanta bank vault -- bean loyalists seem to love it. Bush's has more than doubled its Facebook fan total to more than 12,000 since the campaign started May 16. Duke is being enticed with doggie girlfriends, free meals and more.

"Duke always gets to the point where he almost gives it away and Jay reels him back in," Mr. Oakley said.

Bush's, which controls 67.8% of the baked-bean market, grew sales 1.4% in the year ending April 17, according to SymphonyIRI. Second-place player ConAgra, which owns Van Camp's, had 1.6% growth.

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