Diet Product Firm in Dilemma : Dep Ponders 'Remarketing' of Ayds Candy

Times Staff Writer

When Dep Corp., the hair gel maker, was looking to expand its product line earlier this year, it snatched a company that makes such big-name products as Lavoris mouthwash, Topol toothpaste and Porcelana Fade Cream.

But as part of the $75-million deal to buy Jeffrey Martin Inc., Dep also inherited some other big-name products that it really didn't want and perhaps a big-name problem as well. Along with Bantron smoking deterrent tablets, Compoz sleeping pills, Doan's backache pills, the Rancho Dominguez company purchased the appetite-suppressant candy Ayds.

Dep quickly sold off the Doan's line, and the others--including Ayds--are still on the block. But at a time when an estimated 21,000 Americans have died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the chewy brown candy poses a difficult marketing dilemma for the company.

Seventeen months ago, the AIDS epidemic wasn't enough to convince the previous owner to change the name. Let the disease change its name, a Jeffrey Martin Inc. official said at the time. But today, the new owner acknowledges that it may be time to rethink the marketing strategy for Ayds, and yes, reconsider the name.

But even experts on product names are divided on whether the company should drop a name that weight-conscious Americans have heard about for 48 years.

In an image-building move for the product, Dep plans to pump more calcium into Ayds and market it not only as a diet candy but also as a product for the health-conscious, according to Robert Berglass, chairman and chief executive of Dep Corp. The Ayds package is also being redesigned with a modern flair.

"Obviously, with a name like Ayds, we'll have to do some re-marketing," Berglass said. "We are looking at all aspects of the problem--and that includes the name. Obviously, our product does not give anyone AIDS."

But because Ayds accounts for less then 5% of Dep's annual sales, the company has set some priorities ahead of revamping the Ayds image. For example, Dep executives recently devised new packaging and new ad campaigns for both Lavoris and Topol. "You have to clean one room at a time," Berglass said. "We started with the most important rooms and are working our way down."

But by late summer, Dep expects to unveil a new image campaign for Ayds. And while the company is talking about a new name for the diet candy, marketing executives are divided over renaming a product that its owners have spent millions of dollar to promote. Indeed, the company's previous owner, Jeffrey Martin, staunchly refused to rename it.

"My gut instinct says they should change it," said Sharon Hollander, president of The Name Works, a Long Island, N.Y.-based company that specializes in naming firms. "They should come up with a new name that also incorporates the old name. Something like, 'Skinny--from the makers of Ayds'," she said.

'Familiar Name'

But changing the name could bring with it a host of new problems, said Ira Bachrach, president of Namelab Inc., a San Francisco company that also specializes in corporate naming. "A lot of people are confused by all the diet products. At least that one (Ayds) has a familiar name," he said. "Unless its sales are declining precipitously, they should not change the name."

For competitive reasons, the company would not reveal specific sales or market share figures for Ayds. But Berglass said that sales of Ayds have generally held steady. The giant in the diet aid category is Thompson Medical Co., a New York-based company that sells more than 60% of the nation's diet pills under product names like Dexatrim, Prolamine and Control.

Although sales of diet pills, candies and gums were up nearly 6.9% in the nation's major drugstore chains last year, experts say there is a general sales slowdown in the diet product industry.

Total U.S. sales of these diet products, which exceeded $500 million last year, are believed to have peaked. "Some bad publicity about diet products has resulted in a recent flattening of sales," said Bruce Buckley, editor of Drug Store News, a trade publication.

New Ad Agency Hired

And a senior buyer at Thrifty Corp., which has 600 drug stores in 11 Western states, says he has seen a softening in Ayds sales during the past few years. But the problem, he said, isn't just its name. "They haven't been supporting it much in advertising," said the buyer, who asked not to be identified. "If they change the name but do little to advertise that change, it will go right down the tubes."

To help plot new ad strategy for all of its products, Dep hired a new ad agency a few years ago. That firm, the San Francisco office of New York-based Lowe Marschalk Inc., conceived a entire new marketing strategy for Dep Styling Gel. "The gel was perceived as some sort of institutional artifact," said Jeffrey Adams, chief executive of the San Francisco office. So to modernize the gel's image, Adams pushed for a pump container instead of a tube, a fresh package design and advertising that showed the gel was simple to use--and not the sticky mess that many consumers perceived.

The change helped boost sales of the gel. In the $250-million hair-styling products market, Dep now posts annual sales of about $25 million. Now, the ad firm that helped bolster sales of Dep gel is just starting to create a new campaign for Ayds. "We'd probably try to position it as more of a life-style product--a product that makes people feel good about themselves," Adams said. "Marketing is as much emotional as it is anything else. So we may try to tap into the attitudes of the person who uses it."

As for the name Ayds, well, Adams says he would like to see it changed. "That's one bag we'd like to leave at the station."

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