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Hmm, Packard Bell. Is that part of Hewlett-Packard? Or the phone company?

No, and no. Packard Bell Electronics rocketed to the No. 1 spot in U.S. personal computer sales in the fourth quarter of last year, moving into third place for the year with 10.8% of the market, behind Compaq and Apple and ahead of IBM, according to industry analyst Dataquest Inc. Yet many people still are confused about the name, a one-time leading TV brand resurrected for PCs in 1986.

Packard Bell is too busy building PCs to worry about that, however; 1994 sales more than doubled to $3 billion, with demand so strong VP-Marketing Mal Ransom scrapped plans for the company's first major consumer ad campaign.

Even though the no-frills marketer has one of the PC industry's biggest ad budgets-it spent an estimated $180 million, overseen by Mr. Ransom-it was all poured into retail co-op ads, ensuring a mention in virtually any electronics store circular.

Following the model of consumer electronics marketers, Packard Bell forged relationships with chain stores years be-fore rivals courted the masses. By keeping overhead low, Packard Bell also consistently offers more features at a given price than the competition.

But price isn't the company's only strategy. Over the last year, the company has worked to differentiate its product, giving its PCs a sleeker profile, adding clever color panels to match home decor and unveiling a new logo and packaging.

"We want somebody to be able to recognize a Packard Bell as a Packard Bell," says Mr. Ransom.

But consumers recognized Packard Bell as a contender long before rival PC marketers did.

And belatedly, PC marketers are taking dead aim. IBM alludes to the rival in ads; Hewlett-Packard is entering the home PC market with a line targeting its soundalike.

For Packard Bell and the PC king's Ransom, staying at the top may be tougher than getting there.

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