New Aroma, Old Product : Hills Bros. Reviving Chase & Sanborn

Hills Bros. Coffee Inc., which bought the nearly moribund Chase & Sanborn Coffee Co. last September, says it plans to resurrect the brand--a best seller in the 1930s and 1940s--by giving it a packaging face lift and bigger advertising support.

San Francisco-based Hills Bros., which now markets about a dozen brands of coffee, says the changes planned for Chase & Sanborn will enable Hills Bros. to follow in the footsteps of other coffee makers and focus its marketing efforts on America's baby-boom generation, which has increasingly spurned coffee because of concern over the potential health effects of caffeine.

"We will test-market radio commercials in Syracuse, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C.," said Hills Bros. spokeswoman Charlotte Knabel. "We think the brand will have a lot of appeal to the young (adult) market." She added that "Chase & Sanborn Coffee has retained a high level of (consumer) recognition despite a lack of product advertising for the last 10 to 15 years."

The coffee won't be immediately available in California and most of the western United States.

Instead, Hills Bros. plans to reintroduce the product gradually through a print advertising campaign beginning next month in selected markets in the Northeast and Southeast. The company has also signed former baseball manager Frank Robinson to be a spokesman for Chase & Sanborn.

Formed in 1878, when New England coffee merchant James S. Sanborn teamed with tea importer Caleb Chase, Chase & Sanborn became America's first nationally distributed coffee brand in 1908.

In 1929, the company became a unit of New York-based Standard Brands Inc. Backed by an aggressive advertising campaign on network radio broadcasts such as those hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee, the brand grew quickly in popularity.

By the 1950s, Chase & Sanborn had about 40% of the retail coffee market, according to Knabel. Although the brand continued to sell well to the restaurant and office supply market in recent years, the consumer market slipped when Standard Brands failed to advertise the product aggressively on television, she said.

But reversing the decline may take some doing. The $4.5-billion coffee industry has been in the throes of a slowdown in coffee consumption since 1962. In the first quarter of 1984, coffee consumption averaged 1.99 cups a day per capita, compared with an average of 3.12 cups a day in 1962, according to a survey of 7,500 people by the London-based International Coffee Organization, a group of consumer and producer nations that control 90% of the coffee market. Many Americans have opted for other beverages such as soft drinks and fruit juices, which have proliferated in the last 20 years, experts say.

But Hills Bros. is betting that a new package design, which combines classic pictures of the founders of Chase & Sanborn with bold modern graphics, will catch shoppers' eyes. And to lure those concerned about caffeine, the company is offering Chase & Sanborn decaffeinated.

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