FieldNotes: Upstarts

Deejays' Chatter Brightens Tub Cleanser's Prospects

COMPANY: Automation Inc.

HEADQUARTERS: Jacksonville, Fla.

TYPE OF BUSINESS: Household consumer-product manufacturer

CAPITAL: $4 million in private equity

KEY COMPETITION: The Clorox Co., Dow Chemical Co., Procter & Gamble Co.

COMPETITIVE EDGE: A unique product, an innovative radio campaign

In 1995, Paul C. Porter had a vision: he pictured a plastic bottle of Clean Shower, with its blue-and-yellow label, in every bathroom in the United States. The cutting-edge cleanser ("biodegradable...never scrub your shower again," the label promises) removes soap scum, hard-water deposits, and mildew stains from tubs and shower walls. "I knew this was an incredible product that would take over the shower-cleaning industry," says Porter, chief operating officer and vice-president of Automation Inc., Clean Shower's manufacturer.

Not that Clean Shower had the market to itself. On the contrary, it had to compete against household names like the Clorox Co.'s Tilex Soap Scum Remover and Dow Chemical Co.'s Dow Bathroom Cleaner. To enter such a national market with a new household consumer product is costly, to say the least, averaging $10 million to $20 million mostly for TV, newspaper, and other advertising.

Porter salivated at the prospects of a nationwide TV campaign, but he had to discard that option. TV alone would have consumed at least $5 million. It would have busted the company's $1-million annual budget, quickly chewing through the $700,000 earmarked for advertising. Print advertising he also rejected; it lacked TV's dramatic punch.

That left radio, which offers some of the power of television at a far lower cost. Still, radio looked like a high-risk proposition. "In this day and age," says Jack Neff, a correspondent for Advertising Age, "it's unusual to roll out a national consumer product primarily by using radio." Porter nonetheless decided to do just that.

But he resolved to do it his way. At six foot three and 225 pounds, the gravelly voiced Porter, a 47-year-old Harvard M.B.A. who joined Automation in May 1995, has much the same effect on people as a locomotive coming down the tracks does.

First, Porter ruled out prerecorded commercials as canned and lifeless. Second, he determined that paid, ad-libbed testimonials from disc jockeys would resonate best with consumers. He might have shipped samples by mail, but instead Porter hand-delivered bottles of Clean Shower to deejays, along with a booklet of advertising tips.

One of his first stops: all-talk WRKO, in Boston. Deejays who had been prepped face-to-face by Porter did such a good job hawking Clean Shower that it zoomed to number one in the nonabrasive tub-and-tile-cleaner category at Demoulas Supermarkets Inc., a 57-store chain in New Hampshire and Massachusetts that includes Market Basket stores, according to Julien Lacourse, Demoulas's executive vice-president.

By late 1995 Clean Shower had stormed into the Florida cities of Jacksonville and Tampa. "I'm sure listeners picked up on my enthusiasm," says Dave McKay, a deejay at country station WQYK, in Tampa. Stores in both cities ran out of Clean Shower almost immediately, Porter says. To allow grocers to keep Clean Shower in stock, the company now spreads its orchestrated sequence of radio ads over 10 weeks instead of 4.

Then, in a marathon of road trips over 15 months, Porter went national. He met with 1,200 deejays at 700 radio stations in 30 states. His tenacity has paid off. Clean Shower's sales are projected to reach $14.3 million in 1997, up from $2.5 million in 1996. Now it ranks third among nonabrasive tub cleaners in supermarkets, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market-research company.

Automation's CEO and president, Bob Black, a 58-year-old chemist with an M.B.A. in finance, had invented Clean Shower in his Jacksonville garage in September 1993. For more business savvy, he turned to Porter, who penned a business plan, raised $1 million in private equity, and ramped up distribution.

Automation is predicting that it will turn a profit by 1998, although the company has lost $2 million on the Clean Shower rollout. Its losses underscore a central question: can the company attain profitability while relying on radio advertising to generate sales? Yes, says Porter, who notes that even three months after the radio blitz ended in Boston and Providence, R.I., last June, Clean Shower's market share in the two cities actually jumped to 10.3% from 9.9%.

Already, Clean Shower has imitators. Competitors are copying its container and label and have unleashed radio campaigns of their own. Of course, none of the competition has Porter, whose style is distinctive. When secretaries and other radio-station personnel have thrown up barriers between him and deejays, he has persevered. "I emotionally abused a few account executives and bullied them into letting me see the radio personalities," he says. "When they tried to turn me away, I threatened to advertise somewhere else."