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IACOCCA REVS OLIVIO'S ENGINE RETIRED CARMAKER NOW CATERS TO LOW-FAT FOOD TASTES

By Published on .

Call him a low-fat cat.

Retired Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca is back in the business world, but this time he's working on a product closer to his ancestral roots: an olive oil-based spread with 80% lower saturated fat than butter and no cholesterol.

Called Olivio, the product is now in test in Columbus, Ohio, and Syracuse, N.Y. Nicola Corp., created by Mr. Iacocca and named after his father, is marketing the brand.

Nicola introduced Olivio in the two markets late last month with three TV spots from Castle Underwood, New York.

The two 15-second commercials and one :30 were shot at Mr. Iacocca's homes in California and Tuscany, Italy, though there's no mention of the connection in the spots. Mr. Iacocca does do the voice-overs, introducing himself by name at the beginning.

"Lee is helping to launch the product with his voice, which is beautifully resonant and fits the brand's image perfectly," said Ned Hentz, Nicola president and Mr. Iacocca's son-in-law. "But he won't be a major presence in our advertising."

That's just as well, contended Brian Kardon, a director at Braxton Associates, a Boston consultancy.

Celebrity connections may get consumers to try a new product, Mr. Kardon said, but good taste is what matters most.

"Celebrity-based foods are almost all doing terribly," he said. "Their connection to the product is not terribly important. The key to olive oil paste is trial, and sampling will be crucial to this brand."

Most celebrity brands end up in new-product graveyards-with or without support from the famous people connected to them. Consider Gloria Vanderbilt salad dressing or Phyllis Diller chili.

Even relatively successful brands like Newman's Own or Sinatra's Gourmet Italian Foods have struggled. For the 52 weeks ended Oct. 9, Newman's Own salad dressing is down 1.8% to $24 million and Sinatra spaghetti sauce dropped 12.4% to $640,000, according to Information Resources Inc.

But some make a big impact on the market. Jimmy Dean is perhaps better known today for his breakfast sausage-up 10.7% to $117 million with a 20% share-than for his country singing.

Mr. Hentz said he thinks Olivio will succeed as well. He noted that in one Syracuse supermarket only six units out of 46 were left on shelves one day after they appeared.

People are worried about high-fat butters and confused about how healthful margarines are, he said, adding, "Olivio is made with better ingredients: olive and canola oils. People can feel better about eating it, and it tastes great."

The combined butter/margarine/spreads market is worth about $3.7 billion.

Olivio will roll out to three unnamed markets this spring, said Mr. Hentz, a former BBDO Worldwide copywriter.

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