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Thinking outside the box-literally-is what got Uncle Ben's sales cooking in '98.

Simon Turner, marketing director at the Mars Inc. unit, helped lead Uncle Ben's out of its signature orange box on the dry grocery shelf for the first time, into the freezer case.

"The line . . . lacked innovation and relevance," says Mr. Turner.

The resulting product, jointly produced with Tyson Foods, was dubbed Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls. It, along with a steamy new ad campaign, helped lift Uncle Ben's out its doldrums, contributing to an 8% rise in sales for its flagship rice and rice mix brands (excluding converted rice), according to Information Resources Inc. figures.

The Rice Bowls launch, tested in Houston in '98 and rolled out earlier this year, proved so successful that Mr. Turner says "we outsold our forecasts by three to four times."

But Mr. Turner's group didn't stop there. They added a new dry grocery line inspired by famous chefs, called Chef's Recipe, and pushed into its current test markets of Houston and Baltimore Uncle Ben's Natural Select.

An "infused" rice, the Natural Select grains themselves are flavored so a flavor packet is not needed in preparation.

But it was some virtual Viagra that really perked up the 50-year-old Uncle Ben's. A sex-charged new campaign debuted from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, born of research that found consumer passionate about food. The spots show a couple sensuously trysting over their rice.

"As a brand, Uncle Ben's took itself too seriously for too long," Mr. Turner says. The campaign "made it provocative, breathless, passionate."

Having only recently rolled national, the effort is showing good early returns.

"It's clearly been a major contributor to our success," says Mr. Turner, who notes Uncle Ben's also is embarking on a major sampling road tour.

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