While it's fashionable to talk about companies' buddying up to customers, few truly bond the way Annie's Homegrown does with its consumers. The $3.5-million Sausalito- and Boston -based macaroni-and-cheese manufacturer boasts a database of 75,000 customer names, and owner Ann Withey receives customer calls all day long at home. How does a company that never sees customers do it? You'll find the answers in the packaging.

Coupon offer and address. Annie's encourages word-of-mouth marketing by offering to send discount coupons to customers' friends. Withey personally writes back to 25 customers a week and sends form letters in response to about 1,500 customers each month. Customer information from the letters she receives is entered into the database.

Annie's home number. "We wanted people to realize there's a real Annie," says president Deborah Churchill Luster. Withey, who works from her Connecticut farm, gets about 50 calls a day from customers. She asks callers for feedback about the product and about in-store promotions.

The internet. Weekly, the Web site lures almost 400 visitors and brings in around 30 electronic-mail messages.

The packaging. "When people pick a package up off the shelf, they don't expect to be talked to," says Luster. "Until recently, the only advertising we did was on the box." Although the packaging will remain the same, last spring the company started running radio and bus-side ads and producing a company magazine.

Gift offers. Free bumper stickers spread the company's environmentally conscious message, get people to pick up the product, and encourage customers to write in. So far, 29,391 people have requested "Be Green" bumper stickers, and 11,585 have ordered the $1 refrigerator magnets.

Published on: Jul 1, 1996