Dry cleaner presses case

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From the Internet to the mapping of the human genome, what attracts investors these days are high-tech products that boggle the mind. So if your company has what is perceived as a low-tech innovation with little, if any, sex appeal, how do you entice potential franchisees and other investors?

This was the question facing dry cleaning company Hangers Cleaners and its advertising agency, Howard, Merrell & Partners Inc., both in Raleigh, N.C.

Hangers, a unit of Micell Technologies Inc., is marketing a new cleaning process intended to replace conventional chemical- and petroleum-based cleaning fluids with liquid carbon dioxide, the same stuff that puts the fizz in soda pop.

"It's a unique proposition, because [Micell] is considered a technology company more than a dry cleaning operation, so you are competing with the Silicon Valleys of the world," said Didi O'Boyle, director of database marketing.

In addition to its consumer program, which is aimed at locales where the company is opening a franchised Hangers dry cleaner, the company needed to develop a complementary b-to-b program to attract investors and franchisees.

Howard, Merrell's nearly $1 million ad campaign, which debuted this month, addresses the technology issue head-on—with humor. In a full-page, black-and-white ad, the visual shows a bag of laundry orbiting the earth. The headline reads, "Science has conquered the final frontier: dry cleaning.''

Other ads address additional benefits of Hangers in a more serious tone. "We wanted some fun headlines to grab attention, but we also had to balance that with a more serious approach because of what's really a very serious financial proposition,'' said Scott Crawford, senior VP-creative director at Howard, Merrell.

One of these ads shows a forlorn man on a train platform with the headline, "You know that sinking feeling when you've just missed a great business opportunity?'' Another shows an upside-down hanger holding a tag that reads: "We're turning an $8 billion industry on its head. Care to join us?"

The approach in these two ads is to attract potential franchisees to enter dry cleaning, an industry whose environmental hazards had discouraged investors in the past and prevented a nationwide dry cleaning chain from emerging as McDonald's did in fast food and Starbucks in coffee.

Although it's no human genome map, the breakthrough discovered by company founder Joseph DeSimone did occur in the labs at North Carolina State University. It also, according to Hangers, presents an alternative solution to the environmentally hazardous dry cleaning chemicals currently in use.

"This is the last great roll-up on Main Street,'' said S. Kirk Kinsell, Micell's president-CEO.

In addition to selling this rather unromantic industry to franchisees, the b-to-b marketing campaign was created to reach potential investors. Hangers figured that its targets should have a net worth of $1 million or more. So O'Boyle defined an audience that included people who already owned multiple dry cleaning operations as well as owners of two or more franchises of any kind, such as Taco Bell or Burger King.

The ads are running in BusinessWeek, Fortune, Entrepreneur, Money, Mutual Funds and Kiplinger's Personal Finance. There is also a direct mail component to the campaign.

After barely more than a year of operation, Hangers has 200 franchises, according to Kinsell. It expects the campaign to accelerate its growth.

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