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Sara Lee Tries To Extend Season For Ball Park Dogs

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Sara Lee is asking TBWA\ Chiat\Day to extend the season—for retailers as well as consumers— for Ball Park Franks, the nation's No. 2-selling hot dog brand.

"People eat hot dogs all year round, but everyone loads their marketing activity in the summer months," said Ellen Turner, president of U.S. retail for Sara Lee Foods. "We're working with our trade partners about how to sell hot dogs in the off-season."

The Omnicom Group broke a campaign last month that will run through next winter. It will feature some 20 TV spots starring an straight-talking spokesman named "Frank," played by actor Larry Joe Campbell from the sitcom According to Jim. The ads are all set in Frank's backyard.

"You're going to see Frank barbecuing in February," said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at TBWA\ C\D in Playa del Rey, Calif. "Real men don't hover around the toaster oven at the first sign of a snowflake."

Ball Park's strategy has traditionally been to focus on the product with the long-running tag, "They plump when you cook 'em." The new strategy is to give the brand an unapologetically manly air, embodied by Frank and the new tag, "Be big. Be meaty. Be Frank." They were elements of one of three ideas TBWA\C\D pitched to win the business in February.

In 2001, Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett in Chicago broke work that featured emasculated men and the line, "At least you can eat like a man." But by last year, Ball Park had returned to the "plumps" theme, dusting off an old Michael Jordan endorsement spot from Interpublic Group's Lowe, which had the account before Burnett. (When creative shifted to TBWA\C\D this year, Publicis' Starcom kept media duties.)

In the first three new spots, Frank proclaims his love of various big, simple, unadorned pleasures, then tucks into a dog. Schwartz said future spots will feature Frank offering his takes on cell phones, tailgating, "girthy" women and Nascar. Radio spots and a Web site round out the character.

"Everyone was doing the same thing: 'We make weenies for little kids,' all with manufactured cuteness," Schwartz said. "The client came in with a vision to be the most satisfying meat on the bun."

Ball Park also renews its ties to Nascar with this campaign and will run an sweepstakes with ESPN. The campaign aims to make the Ball Park brand part of high-school and college-football tailgating, as well as minor-league sporting events.

Spending will return to the 2002 level of about $20 million, Turner said, up from the $15 million recorded last year by Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Category leader Oscar Mayer, part of Kraft, spent only $40,000 advertising its hot dogs last year and $6 million in 2002, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Oscar Mayer had $343 million in refrigerated-frankfurter sales last year, down 1 percent from 2002, compared with Ball Park's $305 million, up 5 percent from 2002, per Information Resources Inc. The No. 3 dog is bargain brand Bar-S, at $116 million in 2003 sales, up 11 percent. (Bar-S is No. 2 in terms of sales volume. Its 2003 ad spending was negligible.)

Turner said the effort will judged successful "if Ball Park becomes seen as more than a hot dog and bigger than the summer."