March 2005 - Building a Household Name

Bissell has spent decades developing cleaning solutions for the home. What has been the key to this company’s success? Brand loyalty combined with innovative DRTV campaigns give this family owned business staying power.

By Vitisia Paynich

For nearly 129 years, Bissell has been providing consumers throughout the United States and around the world with household cleaning tools and formulas. What has enabled this company to maintain a strong grip on the floor-care industry is not just the fact that it consistently works toward inventing new and innovative products, it’s the fact that Bissell stays closely connected to customers by adapting to their changing lifestyles, needs and wants.

What’s more, the company stays tied to its roots by remaining loyal to its slogan, “We Mean Clean,” which translates to creative marketing that entertains but effectively communicates the message of high-quality products backed by exceptional customer service.

The Bissell brand’s early beginnings were not born out of a desire to ignite a cleaning revolution but out of pure necessity. In the mid-1800s, Melville and Anna Bissell ran a modest crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Mich. And like most merchants, their routine not only consisted of driving customers to their store but stocking the store shelves with merchandise that arrived in wooden crates. However, sawdust from the crates would often spill out onto the floor, forcing Anna to constantly sweep up the mess.

Aggravated by the persistent dust particles that filled the carpet, she enlisted the help of her husband to solve this cleaning dilemma. Melville came up with the idea to enclose the dustpan, thus, trapping the dirt and sawdust inside. He deemed it the carpet sweeper machine.

“Basically, Melville invented the sweeper to collect the dust off the floor rather than taking the rugs outside and beating them or sweeping [the floor] with a corn broom,” explains Jim Krzeminski, executive vice president, sales, marketing and product development for Bissell Homecare Inc.
Word about the Bissell invention spread like wild fire and people began inquiring about how they could purchase the carpet sweeper.

“We trace the birth date of the company to the issuance of the patent on the carpet sweeper in 1876,” notes Krzeminski.

Bissell’s Little Green Machine

The couple not only solved their own cleaning woes, they stumbled upon an entirely new business venture. Krzeminski says that the company blossomed through the couple’s efforts, and “what’s interesting was as much as [Melville] was the inventor, Anna Bissell was really [the one doing] the marketing behind the company,” he notes.

In fact, when she first saw her husband’s invention, she took the machine to Philadelphia, where she made her first sale to John Wannamaker & Company, the first department store in the United States. In 1883, the Bissells built their first manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids.

Sadly, however, Melville Bissell died in 1889 before he could realize the full scope of his creation. Thus, his wife was left with a family to take care of and growing company to head. “She went on to run the company and was among the first women CEOs in the United States at the turn of the century. Not only did this family matriarch continue her retail efforts, she took and marketed the carpet sweeper at the World’s Fair. Bissell also filed patents in Europe and expanded the business while, at the same time, caring for her family.

According to Krzeminski, Bissell was very promotional-minded and a shrewd businesswoman when it came to the product and brand. “She’s the one who took a product idea and really marketed [it] not only in the U.S. but around the world.”

Fast-forward 129 years later, and while the company has grown exponentially, the values and progressive-minded business strategy remain the same. “We’re still a privately held company, and it’s still run by a member of the Bissell family,” says Krzeminski.

Today, Mark Bissell serves as the company’s CEO, the great grandson of Melville and Anna. He is the fifth CEO in the history of the company and the fourth generation, which Krzeminski points out, is quite unique in this day and age. The company has even earned a place in American history. In fact, some of Bissell’s first sweeper models are displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., as well as in a local museum in Grand Rapids.

However, as much as Bissell holds true to its history, it is first and foremost a business. Krzeminski believes having a female CEO from the beginning gave the company a head start when it came to getting inside the mind of a typical floor-care consumer, especially when women primarily handle the cleaning. “Today, about 75-80 percent of all cleaning product and chemical purchases are either decided by the female head of the household or it’s a shared decision,” he says. According to Krzeminski, only about 19 percent of men make the decision on cleaning even though that’s beginning to change.

“Our goal is to create life-inspired cleaning innovations,” he adds. “Life-inspired is really important to us because there are a lot of companies that can just innovate. And believe me, in the infomercial world, you see a lot of innovative items come and go, but the key is to have relevance in everyday life.” That line of thinking has remained a constant since the company’s inception. In fact, Bissell employees once came across some company writings that dated back to around 1910, which suggested that Bissell products must be consumer-relevant. “I think it’s nice to draw on our history but we don’t spend [all of our] time dwelling on the past as much as how we reinvent ourselves everyday to deliver those new innovations,” notes Krzeminski.

The Flip-It Hard Floor Cleaners allow users to easily perform both wet and dry cleaning.

Bissell’s marketing roots stem from product demonstration when Anna Bissell would promote the carpet sweeper machine at county fairs as well as the World’s Fair. So, when it came time to embrace the television medium, DRTV was a natural transition. “We were one of the first branded appliance companies to enter DRTV, and that was in 1991 when it was still [in its infancy],” says Krzeminski. “We were the first small appliance to utilize the 30-minute infomercial with a product called the Big Green Clean Machine.” From 1991 through 1994, Bissell partnered with Fingerhut to produce its DRTV programs.

He adds that DRTV, especially a half-hour format, lent itself to product demonstration, as opposed to 30-second spots or print advertising. Television gave the company the ability to capitalize on a half-hour show by taking a dirty carpet and showing exactly how the Bissell product could clean up the mess. From 1992 to 1993, the Big Green Clean Machine was one of the top-selling products in the housewares industry. In fact, even 10 years later, the product is still in distribution around the world.

Krzeminski says as DRTV was really taking off, the company decided to stay with infomercials all the way. The Big Green was not available at retail for the first six to nine months. About two to three years after the infomercial first debuted, the product finally made its way to the store shelf. “The product did incredibly well on television and then provided such an awareness that it had an incredible run at retail,” he explains.

Bissell soon followed up its Big Green product with a portable spot steam cleaner. “Big Green did so well in 1992 and 1993, we launched Little Green at the end of ’93, and the [beginning] of ’94,” says Krzeminski.

“Initially, we stayed with long form just because we had such success with it, and it just gave us the ability to demonstrate the product in a variety of formats and settings. It was the traditional [format where] every seven minutes, you repeated the same story but in a different setting,” he says. The programs also included a studio audience, which enabled hosts to enlist their participation during the product demos. Bissell remained loyal to long form all the way up to about 1997 before it started blending long and short form.

As Bissell was evolving as a company, so was its desire to test out new ideas for its direct marketing campaigns. In 1997, the floor-care manufacturer looked to Tyee Productions (now called Euro RSCG 4D DRTV) in Portland, Ore., to tackle its long-form programming. The first shows Tyee produced for Bissell, according to Krzeminski, were the Lift Off vacuum and the second generation Little Green Machine.

He says that during that time, Bissell was also mixing its media on some of the products, which meant producing 30-second TV commercials to tell a quick story, buying media avails on primetime television to build up the brand and then using DRTV around a specific product launch. Thus, Bissell really concentrated on blended media.

“To me, there’s probably five or six different uses for DRTV, as opposed to when we first started,” notes Krzeminski. He adds that when they first began using DRTV, the thought was, “let’s put it out there and sell as many as [possible] in half an hour and then we would look at the cost per order and ask, ‘How are we doing?’”

?The Flip-It Hard Floor Cleaners allow users to easily perform both wet and dry cleaning.Today, however, the company has a much different mindset that includes multi-platform marketing. He describes it as a process of building the brand and putting it into a media mix. “We’re spending millions on print, millions on national TV and millions on DRTV,” he says. The question is: how do you make sure all the different creative elements still feel like Bissell? According to Krzeminski, there’s a place for all of it. “I think DRTV provides so many different paths from product testing to demonstration to selling to a budget media strategy,” he suggests.

In 2003, Euro RSCG 4D DRTV began producing a show for Bissell’s Steam Mop, a bare floor steam cleaner.

Danette Dickerman, vice president of media, agency services for Euro RSCG 4D DRTV, says, “When you look at the Little Green Machine program and some of the other things Bissell had done previously, [you notice that they] were definitely very traditional direct response.”

“What we really liked about Tyee, and I think it still remains with Euro, is the fact that they really brought a comfort level that you could take DRTV and still maintain a really high-quality feel to the brand,” Krzeminski contends. In addition, he says it was important that the company’s DRTV efforts didn’t fight with Bissell’s brand story-whether it was in print or whether it was on primetime television.

“That’s hard to do when you’re having the creative [department] from a traditional ad agency working on your 30 seconds, and you have a different agency working on your creative for 120 seconds to 30 minutes,” he says.

Euro RSCG and Bissell’s traditional ad agency of record, Campbell-Ewald, have worked together to make certain the marketing message in traditional advertising and the direct response campaigns remain cohesive.

Since the late 1990s, Euro RSCG 4D DRTV has been working with Bissell on a number of its product campaigns.

“I believe Bissell has utilized DRTV not only to go more in depth about explaining the product but they have also used it as a sales tool for their retailers,” explains Mary Thornby, account director at Euro RSCG. In fact, a retailer’s logo like Kohl’s has been used to tag certain DR spots primarily to drive customers to the store.

Ann Lamb, Bissell’s director of communications, has worked directly with the Euro team throughout the various stages of a DR project. “When we started working with them on the Steam Mop and CatchALL [programs] in 2003, it was very important that the direct response creative was consistent with their other brand messages,” recalls Dickerman. “I think that was something we definitely agreed on with Ann, and we worked very hard to achieve that.”

Sometimes, the other side of the marketing coin can serve as creative inspiration for the direct response. The creative team once borrowed a character from Bissell’s Motorcycle Club spot, which was a 30-second traditional commercial, and used him in the direct response campaign.

What does the creative process entail? Once the client has given the green light for the DR project, a detailed branding document is sent to Euro from Bissell’s agency of record, along with all the product’s features and benefits. A conference call then occurs between the agency and the client to nail down all the specifics for the DR project.

“[Bissell] knows its audience quite well,” says Anno Ballard, associate creative director and senior writer for Euro RSCG. She adds that once the details have been hashed out, the creative staff provides the client with two to three different script treatments to review. Once Bissell selects one, then Euro takes it to production.

Ballard says, “Because the communication is so good, you [automatically expect] the script will go back and forth three or four times. That’s because you know they’re just being careful to make certain their claims [follow] the legal requirements.”

The Euro team has actually produced four Bissell programs using long and short form. “Every product that we’ve worked on, [the client] has always provided us with consumer research,” notes Thornby. For example, the Steam Mop, a bare floor steam cleaner, was designed by a physical therapist. Thus, the handle was conducive to the strain of pushing and pulling. “So, it’s been great for us to get those kinds of details, and know going out of the gate that we could emphasize interesting features like that,” says Thornby.

One particular long-form show combined two products, the Steam Mop and the CatchALL, a bare floor cleaner. According to Dickerman, “You could order each product [by itself] or you could order it as a bundle.” While she admits that selling multiple products in one show can be challenging, Dickerman says, in this case, the majority of consumers who called to order actually purchased the bundled products. Shortly after, Euro created a two-minute program for just the Steam Mop.

Another memorable show was for the ProHeat self-propelled upright deep cleaner. “It was very different, eye-catching and it actually started out in black and white to reflect the past,” explains Thornby. Ballard, who worked on the creative, also concentrated on the psychology of cleaning and how people actually feel better about themselves when they have a clean house. Another interesting aspect of that show was Euro decided to run a 15-minute show back to back. The team later cut down the ProHeat long-form show into two-minute spots.

Dickerman adds, “When we did the original long-form [ProHeat] show, we were selling directly but when we did the cut-down to the spot, we did it where you could go online and get a rebate coupon. And, one of the things that Bissell communicated to us was that the rebate conversion rate was at a higher percentage than some of their other coupon campaigns. So, they felt that the short-form campaign provided more information for the consumer to make the decision to go and purchase the product.”

Direct response has not only allowed Bissell to build its brand on television, it’s helped enhance its retail presence. “We’ve launched all of our campaigns with the understanding that we’re really in the long run, supporting retail,” says Thornby.

Dickerman says Bissell is very forthright in sharing information with Euro about the company’s retail stats. She adds, “There is a definite correlation between us launching a campaign, being on-air, coming off-air and then having results start to wane. And you definitely see the retail partners out there, such as Kohl’s, experience the greatest lift.” However, the Euro team also discovered with some of the other projects that the other retailers, which weren’t being tagged in the spots but carrying the Bissell products, were also experiencing a lift.

“So while Bissell is not using DRTV to fully make money off of television, if you look at the campaign in its entirety, it’s profitable for them when you combine Web sales, TV sales and the movement at retail,” notes Dickerman.

Does DRTV remain in Bissell’s future? “We’ll continue to use it,” says Krzeminski. “To me, the more you innovate, the more interesting your products are, the more your products do for the customer, the bigger the story to be told. And I just think DRTV is a pretty important piece of introducing product but also building brand awareness.”

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