THE MARKETING 100; MIKE MONDELLO;EARTH'S BEST

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In the 10 years since Earth's Best baby food was born, it has moved into a solid No. 4 position behind category powerhouses Gerber, Beech Nut and Heinz-despite the fact Earth's Best's retail price is at least 50% higher.

The story of Earth's Best, a tiny Colorado marketer with only 38 employees, is one of classic relationship marketing. Unable to afford big-budget ad campaigns, Earth's Best opts for folksy direct mail, a strategy in keeping with its wholesome image as a purveyor of pure, healthy baby foods.

`Consumers feel that Earth's Best is this little company that really cares and is out to do something right for babies and the world," says Mike Mondello, VP-marketing, 37. "The idea moves beyond organic."

Mr. Mondello, who joined the company from herbal tea marketer Celestial Seasonings, carefully nurtures that idea through marketing programs such as "Earth's Best Family Times," a periodic newsletter.

In a recent issue, articles under the fanciful logo of tiny babies gardening included advice from pediatricians on how to administer liquid medicine; cents-off product coupons and an 800 phone number for a list of retailers carrying Earth's Best.

In the newsletter and on product labels, Mr. Mondello's group promotes brand loyalty with the sale of other children's items such as Earth's Best placemats, T-shirts and bibs.

The company does do limited print advertising from Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colo., agency that's heavily involved in creating the other marketing tools as well.

What helps the product is its positioning as a cut above other baby foods.

That's a surefire hook with working mothers who feel a bit guilty about spending less time with their children.

There's no doubt Earth's Best homegrown approach has struck a chord, for whatever reason. For the 52 weeks ended April 23, sales jumped 15.7% to $18.4 million.

Its popularity has attracted the attention of the giants. Beech-Nut tried to bring out an organic baby food but discontinued it saying the market was too small. The relatively small size of the organic market suits pint-size Earth's Best just fine.

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