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Sometimes, even celebrities get the flu.

David Letterman caught the sentiment of the nation last week while interviewing CBS newswoman Connie Chung. After moaning about spending New Year's at home with a 118-degree fever, the late-night funnyman advised Ms. Chung to have her husband, talk show host Maury Povich, "take everything he owns, turn it into cash and buy as much stock in Kimberly-Clark as you possibly can. Because I'm going through Kleenexes like they were Kleenexes."

The grateful market leader last week was scurrying to deliver a case of Kleenex tissues to Mr. Letterman. The company also broke a new TV spot from Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, for Kleenex, starring a Groucho Marx-like face with a swollen, red nose.

Meanwhile, miffed Procter & Gamble Co., marketer of No. 2 Puffs, briefly considered sending Mr. Letterman a truckload of Puffs but scrapped the idea. The company did send a case of Puffs Plus to Grand Junction, Colo., radio personality Steven Dee to give away to a congested listener. The stunt developed after Mr. Dee went through three boxes of Puffs Plus in a week himself, and called P&G to thank thecompany for making such a great "Kleenex." (It's the thought that counts, right?)

Celebrity sampling is shaping up as a popular new marketing tool. Sunkist Growers plans later this winter to deliver packages of citrus to TV weathercasters in some major markets with hopes of an on-air mention.

Whether it's runny noses, fever or sore throats, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence the cold and flu misery season is setting in.

"Manufacturers talk frequently about a heavy or light season for flu because it obviously impacts sales," said Patrick McTigue, president of Chicago healthcare agency Corbett Health Connect. "This has been a very heavy season; a bad season for colds and respiratory infections."

"... I've seen a lot of tie-ins with Kleenex and print campaigns with cartoon approaches with red noses and coughing spells," he said. "But more often than not, it's done by a sales rep who makes sure he's leaving more individual product samples to remind his/her client to get ready for flu season and the respiratory infections that follow."

Big-name marketers are jumping in, too. P&G recently began promoting a mail-in offer to consumers for its "Managing Medications" information kit on spot TV, and the company says it is receiving "heavy" requests.

P&G and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. offer on-pack toll-free consumer telephone information numbers. P&G's lines for Vicks cold and flu products logged heavy traffic last week, with long delays.

The toll-free lines provide a point of differentiation between the P&Gs and Bristol-Myers of the world and private-label brands. Still, the temptation to switch can be strong when a trusted retailer's private label version is almost $2 cheaper. For example, a Walgreen's drugstore in Chicago sells a 6-ounce bottle of P&G's NyQuil Multi-Symptom Cold/Flu remedy for $5.19; Walgreen's own 6-ounce bottle of similar "Rest Easy" multisymptom flu remedy is only $3.69.

Towne-Oller & Associates, New York, reported private-label sales of cough/cold/allergy/sinus remedies represented 16.1% of the $2.2 billion market for the 12 months ended Nov. 30. That's a 9% gain for private label, the leading cold and cough "brand," from a year earlier in food and drugstore sales share.

While research from Efidac 24 marketer Ciba-Geigy Corp. so far indicates the cold/flu season isn't as bad as last year, "my office, my family-everybody I talk to has it," said Marketing Director Jerry Cutler. "... I think the problems this year are in local or regional pockets."

Among those pockets: FitzGerald Communications in Cambridge, Mass. Said President Maura FitzGerald: "We've had an institutional cold here since the holidays ... We have 30 people here and about 15 people have it. Once you get it, it's like getting to become one of the family."

At agency Thompson & Co., Memphis, Tenn., VP Bob Bornbrock has "seen more cans of Lysol around here than I have in the past 10 years. We are fairly loose in terms of using each other's telephones and no one has been offended if their phones are sprayed with Lysol to ward off the germs."

A cold canceled vacation skydiving plans for John Morgan, VP-general manager of public relations at Earle Palmer Brown, Bethesda, Md.

"Everyone gets together at the holidays and they bring their mucus babies, which you have to hug," he said. "The parents might be immune to it, but I'm not."

Written from staff and correspondent reports.

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