PC MARKETER BETS ON COLOR

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Check out the specs on Packard Bell's new computers: Pentium chips. CD-ROM. Built-in TV. Teal accent panels.

Teal accent panels? Indeed. Westlake Village, Calif.-based Packard Bell Electronics, the leading marketer of PCs in retail stores, is introducing PCs in fashion colors, part of an ambitious plan to differentiate the machines-and the company-from a sea of PC clones.

The marketing plan includes color, product and package changes and, this fall, the first major media campaign in the company's history. Packard Bell will spend "in the ballpark" of the $15 million that rival Compaq Computer Corp. spent last fall on its new Presario home computer, according to Mal Ransom, Packard Bell's VP-marketing.

By the all-important Christmas selling season, Packard Bell expects its new color-keyed line to account for more than 85% of its sales.

For now, Packard Bell appears to have the PC color scheme to itself.

"From our standpoint, we hope that nobody jumps in because we think we have a great feature," Mr. Ransom said. But cloning is at the root of the PC business, and Mr. Ransom expects rivals to roll out color clones.

Color PCs should have the strongest appeal in the home market, Packard Bell's forte, as consumers pick a color compatible with decor, Mr. Ransom said. But he sees possibilities in business, where companies might match the colors used in modular offices.

Acer America, a smaller clone marketer, is believed to be considering its own colorful PCs. And giant IBM Personal Computer Co. has looked at the idea but hasn't introduced any colorful PCs yet.

IBM's AS/400 minicomputer division, however, in May began promoting the "bold new styling" of a streamlined black computer line. Big Blue picked black in part to highlight the slimmed-down product design and appeal to younger buyers.

"The new AS/400," ad headlines announced. "Black goes with everything." IBM's former agency, Lintas, New York, created the campaign.

In the pre-computer era, IBM offered Selectric typewriters in various tones.

In the PC age, computer marketers have shown a predisposition toward offering any color as long as it's dull. Beige and gray are the colors of choice in desktop PCs.

Packard Bell had a bright idea: teal, sahara (a.k.a. strawberry) and azure (a.k.a. blue) plastic panels that snap onto the front and sides of its new PCs.

The $1,500-to-$2,500 PCs, entering stores this summer, come with gray panels. A color-panel accessory kit runs less than $20. Making color an accessory keeps down PC pricing and eliminates the need for retailers to inventory PCs in multiple colors.

Color is one of a series of visible changes intended to raise the profile of Packard Bell.

The marketer pioneered the sale of PCs in the '80s in mass merchandisers and consumer-electronics chains, where it remains No. 1. Packard Bell accounted for nearly 5% of the 16.2 million PCs shipped in the U.S. last year, ranking it sixth in the overall market, according to Computer Intelligence InfoCorp, La Jolla, Calif.

Packard Bell always has offered the masses up-to-date technology. It expects a fourth of its PCs this Christmas to be powered by Intel Corp.'s flagship Pentium chip, and more than 80% to include a CD-ROM drive.

Packard Bell's various new models offer other bells and whistles, including a built-in TV, FM radio, telephone answering machine and special software.

But for the first time, Packard Bell is concerned about appearances-with color, a new streamlined industrial design, and a new logo and packaging.

"There's no way to miss one of the new Packard Bells on the shelf," Mr. Ransom said.

Packard Bell also is beginning an aggressive push in media spending to build an image.

The company has long relied on retailer co-op advertising; its $50 million-plus co-op budget last year rivaled what major PC marketers like IBM spend on media.

Packard Bell is continuing heavy co-op. But after spending just $400,000 on media last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting, the marketer is turning up the media, which will help counter moves by Compaq and others into the consumer market.

Packard Bell began a multimillion-dollar campaign July 23 on the Goodwill Games, airing on Turner Broadcasting System and ABC; Turner produced the spots. That will be followed with an estimated $15 million fall campaign, primarily TV, through Stein Robaire Helm, Los Angeles. The budget won't match Compaq's expected year-end blitz. But Packard Bell is betting products, distribution and stepped-up advertising will keep its brand No. 1 at retail.

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