Harlequin Enterprises was roaming Central Europe looking for a match for its tales of passion. There was forlorn Czechoslovakia-pulsing with 7 million love-starved women.
After an intense marketing relationship, the couple fell into a passionate affair in which Harlequin swept women off their feet, selling the equivalent of one title per woman, in its first full year of business, 1993.
The Toronto-based foreigner's success is a lesson to other Western marketers on how to tackle the East by combining proven western marketing strategies with local innovation.
Harlequin first ventured into the region in 1991 by introducing its novels in Hungary. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria followed the next year, and the company is now test marketing in Russia and doing a feasibility study on Romania, "said Coen Abbenhuis, Harlequin's European regional director based in Zug, Switzerland.
Already, Eastern appetites for Harlequin titles match that of the West. In the Czech Republic, Harlequin sold 7 million books last year, about the average in Western countries of one book per woman. Harlequin sells 250 million books annually worldwide, to women of all ages.
In the former Czechoslovakia alone, romance books rake in close to $10 million a year.
Instrumental in Harlequin's Czech success is its managing director Dagmar Diriginov , a onetime adwoman and former publisher of a local teen magazine Watch Out Girls. "It was very dangerous," said Ms. Diriginov , referring to a ban on romantic novels enacted during the nation's 21 years under Communism that ended in 1989.
"Communist thought police had persuaded women here that light romantic literature-the kind with happy endings-was little more than capitalist trash."
Working from her pink-cushioned Prague headquarters, Ms. Diriginov used Harlequin's standard marketing tactic of advertising on TV initially. The former adwoman, who ran a an agency called digdag before being recruited by Harlequin, created the spots herself. To this day, Harlequin has no agency in that country.
Using the theme "It's Wednesday, the day of Harlequin" to alert women to the day Harlequin's books are published, she created three TV and cinema commercials. The spots were in different hues to match the color coding of Harlequin books: innocent for white-covered "romance," violet for "temptation" stories and red for "desire" books with racy, erotic themes.
Each spot features a woman leaving an ordinary man to walk down a dream-like corridor in search of the ideal man who will never leave her. The spots were shot with white, red and violet color filters, and the voiceover varies slightly according to category. The red spot ends "Wake up to a world of desire. With someone who will never leave you." In the violet spot, the word temptation is substituted for desire; in the white spot, romance.
Perhaps more importantly, she also used local strategies appealing to Czech and Slovakian women, including public relations and direct mail to sell Harlequin aggressively as a self-styled women's club and a way of life.
Ms. Diriginov coaxed editors of women's magazines into interviewing her, and she talked about women's needs, their problems and romantic frustrations.
At the same time, Harlequin blanketed the country's newsstands with its books, bypassing traditionally slow book channels. Harlequin priced its thin, color-coded paperbacks at about $1 each.
The response to the program was overwhelming. More than 19,000 women wrote to Ms. Diriginov in the two short months between Harlequin's inception in November 1992 and the end of that year when about 16 books had been published.
"They asked me for advice, what to do, saying they are not happy with men," Ms. Diriginov said. Snowed under the unexpected torrent of mail, Ms. Diriginov hired readers and brought in a psychologist to help answer readers' questions.
These letter writers have formed a database that has ballooned to more than 50,000, and Harlequin invites these customers to parties and promotional events. Hosted, by Harlequin, high-profile costume balls and St. Valentine's Day parties (introducing a holiday that did not exist here before 1989) regularly attract media coverage on TV and in newspapers.
In another unique promotion she designed, loyal readers use free Harlequin "monthly" calendars distributed at newsstands to record their menstrual cycles next to the days on which new Harlequin titles appear.
Harlequin's success has been accomplished despite its high price tag ($1.00) compared to local publisher Ivo Zelezny, whose romance titles sell for half that.
The Canadian company's approach has also inspired clan-like loyalty. Take, for example, Vladislava Dudasov , one of Harlequin's 55-volunteer "Harlequin lady" force. She canvasses her small town conducting invaluable market research in return for free copies of the 14 titles Harlequin publishes monthly.
Ms. Dudasov , 21, who works for a local printing company, spends between two days and a full week each month gathering sales information. She checks in with every store in her industrial town of Chomutov in northern Bohemia to verify they are receiving the books and to note how quickly they are selling.
"Some people think it's junk literature, but I think there's enough evil in the world and these books always have a happy ending," she says.