While they unleash a seemingly endless stream of line extensions scrambling for top-line growth, Airborne, a folksy cold-prevention remedy invented by a school teacher, is logging double-digit sales increases-and triple-digit growth in the cold and vitamin aisle.
After Wal-Mart began carrying the Alka-Seltzer-like tablets in 2004, sales soared to $90 million and Airborne is on track to more than double that this year, despite a spate of private-label copycats hitting shelves recently, including a generic by Walgreens blatantly dubbed Wal-borne. The brand has been so successful that Wal-Mart highlighted product inventor and company founder Victoria Knight-McDowell in its 2005 annual report.
What's helped is a host of free celebrity endorsements when a word-of-mouth wave hit Hollywood with the likes of Kevin Costner praising the product. Then, in October 2004 the brand got an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Sandee Escene, senior category manager for natural vitamins and supplements for Drugstore.com, watched sales of Airborne jump 700% the next week.
"Sales went through the roof, just as everything Oprah touches. It is still my top natural product," said Ms. Escene, adding Airborne seems to be driving the 65% jump in her category sales. "It's driving more prevention buying."
Based on Airborne's view of the cold aisle, it has just overtaken the No. 1 spot in the cold, allergy and sinus tablets category, knocking out venerable brands like Claritin D, Benadryl, Sudafed and Mucinex. Information Resources Inc. doesn't see the cold category the same way-IRI instead groups Airborne into vitamins and supplements-but even so, the data tells an amazing growth story. In the $737 million multivitamin category for the year ended Oct. 30, while the top six brands, including private-label, posted negative results, Airborne soared to a 375% gain, posting $63.5 million in sales for the year.
In describing the last five years of growth, Ms. Knight-McDowell often employs the word "surreal." But it wasn't always that way. Ms. Knight-McDowell, for example, in 2000 turned down an Oprah producer's request for an appearance on a show about folk medicine. "We didn't want to be seen as a folk-medicine product, but to turn that opportunity down was really hard," she said.
But after the product took off, "the sheer volume, and the intricacies of running a business were exceeding our abilities," she said. Two years ago, she recalled, "I had a six-month-old baby on my hip and was carrying cases of Airborne into local stores."
It was time for professional management. But not wanting to compromise, the search took two years. "I wanted to protect the integrity of the formula and its benefits and its homespun genius," said Ms. Knight-McDowell, who hired Elise Donahue, former CEO of Prestige Brands and a former Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble Co. marketer, as Airborne CEO in May.
Under Ms. Donahue, the brand is now going international, adding more flavors and a slew of new extensions to expand the franchise. It's also launching its first paid ad campaign. Airborne's national TV blitz, a $20 million print, broadcast and guerrilla-marketing campaign, via Ten United, Columbus, includes an ad buyout of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
"Our consumers are passionate about this brand," said Ms. Donahue. "We want to grow awareness to a much higher level, and to do that you have to add media on top of that and can't rely only on word-of-mouth."
Mark Niederluecke, a partner with Axiom Group, a market research and new-product development firm based in Minneapolis, credited Airborne's success to the product's message clarity. "They've done a good job positioning and it's very clear to the consumer what they are buying," he said.
But is it really clear whether Airborne is a vitamin or cold remedy? Christine Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Center for Disease Control, said since herbal remedies are not scientifically tested and proven to work, they should never replace an annual flu shot. "That's still the best line of defense," she said.
Her recommendation on preventing colds is to "do the things your mom always told you to do," Ms. Pearson said, such as washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands.