At about the same time the National Infomercial Marketing Association (NIMA) was forming, a young television executive and Procter & Gamble veteran was helping expand the reach of direct response products. Instead of shooting a quick-money campaign and cashing out, Peter Bieler wanted to build the ThighMaster into a true brand.
At the time, retail was the “last act” of a DR campaign, Bieler says. When telephone orders started to drop off, one would sell the product rights to a company specializing in retail distribution. “That idea didn’t really build much in the way of operational value,” he says.“I would take a product and use television to create the brand. I pitched the ThighMaster with this whole process in mind.”
Plowing up to $100,000 per week in the exercise appliance’s initial sales back into remnant-rate media starring the striking Suzanne Somers, Bieler was able to get consumers to respond much faster. It was only about six weeks before people started asking for the ThighMaster by name in stores.
With shelf space at Target, Walmart, Duane Reade, and Kmart stores, Bieler’s Ovation Communications sold 6 million ThighMasters over 18 months in 1991 and 1992, three-quarters of which sold in stores. “It was not a hard sell,” Bieler says.“People were making jokes about it, which was great publicity. After three months on television, we were in every major store in the country.”
The strategy was risky at the time, since it required up to 90 days to see any revenues from retail sales. “Essentially, we created this brand name, then we were going to leave the direct response party and go very quickly to retail,” he says. “There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Bieler ultimately sold his share of Ovation and launched Media Funding Corp. to help other marketers build brands by loaning them the money necessary to buy the television exposure needed to become household names. He recounts the ThighMaster saga in his memoir, This Business Has Legs.
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The above blog post was adapted from the “Parting Shot” article featured in the November-December 2015 issue of ER magazine.