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Margarine made partly from pine trees doesn't sound too tasty-some people might even say it tastes like pine cones-but the cholesterol-reducing properties of Benecol margarine are whetting the appetites of international investors and consumers.

The good news for Jaako Laaksonen, 37, director of international marketing for Raisio Tehtaat, a small, previously unknown Finnish food and chemicals business, is that local shoppers are lining up to pay $14 a pound for Benecol margarine faster than stores can stock it. Other brands cost about $3.50 per pound. Benecol's initial marketing success in Finland has driven Raisio's share price up by more than 100% on the Helsinki Stock Exchange since April, and it shoots up each time the company moves closer to an international launch, planned for 1997.

So what could possibly be the bad news? Mr. Laaksonen's employer has never before tried to create an international brand. Even worse, Benecol is such a surprise hit that Raisio can't yet get enough of the key cholesterol-lowering ingredient, vegesterol, which is extracted from green plants and trees, for large-scale production.

"We are currently drafting an international expansion strategy, and this will be ready by year's end," he said. "Our primary focus is countries with high disposable income and where people generally have problems with cholesterol levels."

Mr. Laaksonen is negotiating vegesterol supplies with forestry companies and is seeking partners among food marketers around the world to help develop Benecol as a major international brand.

Beyond margarine, the company sees Benecol as a potential brand name for any food traditionally loaded with lots of fat. "Outside the Nordic countries, we believe that Benecol will be added to different kinds of food, such as yogurt, potato chips and the like," Mr. Laaksonen said. "We have a research team working on this, but the opportunities are seemingly endless. That said, we are going to move forward cautiously."

Raisio broke a domestic print and TV campaign by Concept, Helsinki, for Benecol margarine's November 1995 launch. Ads asked consumers if they wanted to reduce their cholesterol levels and offered Benecol as the answer. Raisio claims that consumers who use Benecol as a spread or in cooking can lower their cholesterol levels by up to 15% in 48 hours. The campaign took off but had to be pulled in February when demand far outran supply.

"Our domestic marketing strategy right now is not to have one," said Juusi Hirvela, Raisio's marketing director for Finland.

Mr. Laaksonen plans to break TV and print ad campaigns wherever Benecol is launched, but he is fending off the approaches of international agency networks until the vegesterol supply problem is solved.

In January, Benecol will tackle its first international market when it rolls out in Sweden.

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