In Down Economy, Can DRTV Build Brands?

Though often scoffed at as high on annoyance and low on creativity, direct response TV has become an increasingly attractive option for marketers hoping the extra time will lead to a heightened brand image, like Salton’s George Foreman Grill.

The Holmes Group, a $700 million global housewares marketer, is seeking such success for its latest product, the Harmony Air Purifier. THG, which owns brands that include Masterglow, Crock-Pot, Rival and Bionaire, has teamed with DR specialist Advanced Results Marketing for a two-minute TV spot—a short form for the category—to promote the purifier.

“[The effort] is a very close combination of brand sensibility and offer prominence,” said David Sarlitto, vp of direct channel marketing at the Milford, Mass., client. “There are many branded commercials that rely less on the DRTV functions—they usually pay a price in terms of reduced response. The other side is the more you boost the offers in some people’s minds, you reduce the brand appeal, so we are walking right down the middle.”

The Harmony ad, which is set to break in September on national cable stations, is meant to increase awareness of air-purification technology, boost the profile of THG and the Harmony brand, and offset the media cost through direct sales, Sarlitto said.

“We don’t accept the notion that DRTV doesn’t build brands. It absolutely does,” Sarlitto said. “You just have to be careful: If you present a very schlocky, fly-by-night brand image, it’s going to hurt longer-term viability.”

The spot, which features a mix of testimonials, technical descriptions and calls to action, is tagged, “Harmony cleans your air, fits your life.”

“[DRTV spots] are crafted to be brand-conscious but also have direct elements—by combining those, [we] are able to purchase media at a discounted price,” said Victor Grillo, CEO of the Marlboro, Mass.-based shop, which has worked with the client for two years on various DR spots, including several for Crock-Pot.

Though housewares companies have often used DRTV to sell their products, the category has seen a boost in recent years, largely due to tough economic times. According to the Direct Marketing Association’s Economic Impact report, DRTV has grown by 10.7 percent yearly from 1997 to 2002 and will generate $154.1 billion in U.S. sales in 2003.

“It seems there’s a direct correlation … the worse the economy is, the more active DRTV becomes,” said Tobe Berkovitz, Boston University professor of communications, who noted that the “last great heyday” of DRTV was during the recession of the early ’90s.

“[Some] laugh, but it’s a very powerful tool,” said Clare Kloger, president of Jordan Whitney, a Tustin, Calif., research, consulting and publishing company that tracks DRTV spots.

Given the fairly low cost of creating a DRTV spot—about $28,000 for a low-end production up to $174,000, according to the DMA—even mainstream marketers are swimming in the DRTV waters.

“Dell and Gateway have tried it. P&G has done a number of short-form presentations in the past year for retail products,” said Kloger. Last year, General Motors and Lowe took the plunge with a 28-minute infomercial touting GMC trucks, the first DRTV effort from the car marketer.

“I think the successful DRTV ads can build a brand, but the problem is … that the successes are few and far between,” said Berkovitz. “For every George Foreman Grill, there are a lot of products that people will buy out of impulse or curiosity rather than because of [brand recognition].”