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Founders of Breath Asure Savor Sweet Smell of Success : Marketing: Heavy advertising featuring actor George Kennedy helps L.A. County firm’s sales rocket upward.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The husband and wife owners of Calabasas-based Breath Asure Inc. say their company began with an ultimatum. Lauren Raissen told her husband, Anthony, that he had to do something about his pickle breath or he could keep his distance.

“I was pregnant, and I had the worst morning sickness you can imagine,” she said. “He always reeked of pickles.”

Anthony, a stocky devotee of garlic and onions as well, said he tried gum, mints and mouthwashes and finally resorted to the old home remedy of parsley. It worked for a while, but, he said, “there’s only so much parsley you can eat.”

His search for a solution led to the discovery of a formula of parsley seed oil and sunflower oil. The company claims it cures bad breath. From a modest start with $50,000 in savings and investments in 1992, Breath Asure has grown into an enterprise with 30 employees and $5.5 million in sales last year. Thrifty Drug, Sav-On and Ralphs are among the stores that carry the product. This year the Raissens expect sales to top $7 million.

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They attribute the quick growth to massive advertising. The company spends 30 to 40 cents on advertising for every $1 in sales. It has invested in radio ads starring actor George Kennedy. Anthony liked the idea of having ads on the Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh programs because he appreciated radio’s ability to conjure up images of morning mouth or the telltale smell of pizza after lunch.

Company executives say the product, BreathAsure, works because the gel capsules are swallowed, then dissolve to “clean” breath from within the digestive system where halitosis, commonly called bad breath, can originate. Though BreathAsure is more expensive than its competitors in gum or candy, fans say their breath doesn’t come out fresh or minty, but with no offensive odor at all.

Anthony, who strides about his office calling his colleagues “mate,” came across the formula by exploring products in his native South Africa.

The Raissens moved to the United States eight years ago. Anthony, 34, started an electrical engineering business, while Lauren, 30, an accountant, continued her career with Ernst & Young. She left to have their first child, then became involved in the business.

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It took two years from the time they discovered the formula to prepare it for launch at the Los Angeles Garlic Festival, held in the summer in Westwood.

Anthony, the executive vice president, and Lauren, the company president, set up a booth at the festival. They hawked the product to passersby, including Bill Handel, the morning-drive-time talk-radio host on KFI-AM. Handel asked for a sample and promised he would put Anthony on the air if it worked. Anthony was skeptical that Handel had a show at all.

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“We fought for half an hour,” Handel said. “Finally, he threw me a pack and said, ‘Fine. You wore me down.’ ”

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Handel said the product worked for him, and he kept his promise. After Anthony’s appearance on the show, the phone rang at the Raissen home in Encino, where they were running the business. Within 48 hours, they found themselves six weeks behind in orders.

Within a week, the business had moved into an office conveniently located above a garlic-saturated Italian restaurant in Encino. They had named the product “Garlic-Go,” which was intended to mean that the product made garlic smells go away. But it was clear that customers weren’t getting it. They started researching a new name.

As they expanded, they hired Craig Shandler, who had worked before on marketing new products. They invested in direct-response advertising, in which an 800 number is called to purchase a product. The company used a different number for each of its magazine, TV and radio ads so the most successful ads could be pinpointed.

The executives then persuaded health food stores to stock their all-natural product. After that, they went to independent pharmacies. For a while, Shandler and Anthony Raissen felt as if they lived out of their cars, trying to persuade drug and grocery stores to display it near the Binaca or the Tic-Tacs. But retailers balked at stocking an untried product that cost $5.99 for a pack of 50, compared to about $2.49 for Binaca and 59 cents for Tic-Tacs.

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So Breath Asure kept spending on advertising. Soon stores opting to sell it were taking advantage of the heavy promotion. Lori T. Latta, a buyer for Trader Joe’s Co., said that “ever since we’ve had it, it’s just flown off the shelves.” Now about 70% of the company’s sales are through retail stores.

Still, for all Breath Asure’s success, many dentists say that, while bad breath may be easy to detect, its causes are not simple to explain. Clifford Whall, the director of product evaluations for the American Dental Assn., said bad breath has numerous origins besides digestion, including poor sinus drainage and periodontal disease.

Breath Asure counters that unhappy customers are those who take too few capsules.

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In the past, no one tried to cure bad breath, Anthony says, only to mask it with mints or sprays. Before, “the best you could do is brush your teeth.”

The promotion backing the clean-breath claims is helping to carve a new market niche, said John Kogler of the Jordan Whitney Greensheet, a Tustin newsletter that tracks direct-response advertising.

“They’ve created, with their media plan, product awareness,” Kogler said. “Direct response is the way to go unless you’ve got awfully deep pockets. It’s not like Procter & Gamble--they can afford $25 million [in advertising] to create brand awareness.”

Banks were at first reluctant to support them, Anthony said, because of the potential for fraud with a new company taking credit card numbers over the phone. So Breath Asure asked customers to send checks instead of their American Express card numbers.

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When people started coming back with repeat orders, the bankers caved in. Union Bank now features the company in its advertisements.

Glenn Keller, vice president and manager of Union Bank in Pasadena, said he’s been amazed by the Raissens’ commitment to the business.

“They had something going, but they weren’t flashy,” he said. “They had never borrowed. Here were people who had started this company and financed it all by giving up things and pumping it into the business.”

Keller noticed the company’s caution in small things. He noted, for example, that Lauren won’t part with her Ford and that the company still uses its old furniture, though it has now relocated to a 3,400-square-foot headquarters.

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The building is so large the couple can avoid each other all day. That’s fortunate, Anthony joked. “Otherwise, we’d kill each other.”

But the labor divisions are clear. Lauren--who has been named a regional finalist for an entrepreneur of the year award co-sponsored by Inc. Magazine--handles the books. Anthony handles promotion. Shandler, also an executive vice president, handles marketing.

The Raissens have two children, though friends joke that the business has become their third baby.

One thing has not changed: Anthony still eats all the pickles he can.

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