Whether by rooftop, rickshaw or tugboat, the Kraft Foods unit has built its tin of "curiously strong" mints into a gospel for the upscale urban set and, as such, has seen the growth of a cult phenomenon most marketers only dream about.
In less than a decade, Altoids has built a 24.9% share of the $320 million breath-freshener category and is just a hair away from surpassing Ferrero USA's longtime leading brand Tic Tac, which holds a 25.3% share.
And, if copycats are any indication, Altoids definitely is onto something. Nabisco's LifeSavers have jumped on the bandwagon with extra-strong Ice Breakers; Warner-Lambert Co.'s Certs introduced Powerful Mints; and Van Melle USA recently introduced Mentos Cool Chews.
The phenomenon dates to the early 1990s when the Seattle coffeehouse set leapt on the tins of mints Callard & Bowser was just introducing in the U.S.
"The tin alone became an expression of good will, of old world quality and tradition," said Chris Peddy, senior brand manager.
Callard & Bowser in 1994 turned to agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, to determine a way to broaden its message.
"The process happened as I wish it would in all cases," said Steffan Postaer, senior VP-creative director at Burnett. "We got to intuit what we thought the brand should be based on our perceptions of the product."
That perception was dead on. With Callard & Bowser's minimal budget, Burnett determined building sides and transit posters were the most cost-effective, and the landmark campaign was launched.
Quippy one-liners accompanied by an occasional photograph -- among them "Nice Altoids" alongside a retro muscle man -- captured consumers and drove a remarkable initial explosion, with sales growing 26% or more in major markets within two weeks, Mr. Postaer said.
Although Callard & Bowser spent a record $10 million on media in 1998 according to Competitive Media Reporting, more than $9 million of that in magazines, the curious part of the brand message as well as Altoids' active consumer target have dictated that ads reach beyond traditional media.
"Our goal is to surprise and delight consumers . . . with things that are curious, strong and original," Mr. Peddy said.
Along those lines, Altoids last year developed a program dubbed the Curiously Strong Art Collection to support emerging visual artists on the contemporary art scene. The effort is highlighted on altoids.com, as well as exhibits in art-savvy markets.
Although some balked at extending the thriving brand with new flavors, fearing it would jeopardize its authenticity, the Wintergreen variety introduced two years ago has been a big hit, prompting Callard & Bowser to introduce a cinnamon flavor this year. So far, said one sales executive close to the company, sales of the cinnamon variety have been incremental to the category.
That executive predicts the base peppermint flavor will grow to $60 million in sales within another year, with wintergreen and cinnamon hitting $50 million each. While those numbers might be high, he concedes: "Altoids is a rocket. . . . We're not cocky, are we?"
Not a bit.