Father of the infomercial

The letters swirl into focus: “Home Miracles 1950.” A grainy black-and-white image brightens on the screen.

It’s a man, probably in his 60s, standing in a glowing white kitchen behind a counter bursting with blenders, food and utensils. The man is silent for a moment, perhaps unsure whether the cameras are, indeed, rolling. Then, like a crack of thunder, he begins the booming sales pitch.

“Folks, here we have one the most wonderful machines ever invented … The Vita-Mix.”

The infomercial is born. Its father is Cleveland’s W.G. Barnard.

Love ’em or hate ’em, anyone with a television knows an infomercial when they see one. The 30-minute commercials constitute a large percentage of programming on cable television after midnight. The Direct Marketing Association puts Barnard’s 30-minute spot for WEWS-TV in Cleveland in 1950 as one of the first, if not the first, infomercials.

Today, there are hundreds of infomercials (what the industry calls Direct Response Commercials). But it wasn’t actually Barnard, or “Papa,” as he is known at Vita-Mix, who started the phenomena, although he was the star. It was his son, Bill, who recognized the potential of this popular invention called television.

“My dad’s looking at this huge box with a tiny screen and thought, ‘There could be hundreds of thousands of people watching this. Why don’t we do the same thing?'” says Vita-Mix Corp. President John Barnard. “In those days, you only had three channels, and they didn’t have a lot of programming, so my grandfather’s program was more exciting than the normal programming. A lot of people watched it over and over again because it was just more entertaining.”

The Barnard men were self-taught salesmen and since 1921 had traveled around the country to fairs and trade shows demonstrating and selling Vita-Mix machines. The television spot, in their minds, was just another demonstration, only this time, the pitch wasn’t to a group of 30 people gathered around a booth at the county fair. It was a pitch to thousands — in their homes. Advertisers didn’t recognize the impact until years later.

“At that time, he gave out his home phone number on the show and he basically sat on the edge of the bed all night long answering the phone,” Barnard says. “That was back with those antiquated phone systems. The operator in Akron would call up and say, ‘I’ve got 30 calls waiting for you.'”

Barnard and his marketing staff just released another infomercial for the Vita-Mix 5000, the latest household model. Although the technical quality of the infomercials has improved, the new 15-minute spot still has the skeleton of Barnard’s pioneering commercial from television’s Golden Age. Filmed in Cleveland, the latest ad uses actors Mike Kraft and Connie Dieken, who effortlessly create drinks and dishes, all with soft jazz playing in the background.

The message, however, is the same as it was in 1950: Health.

“Barnard was delivering a fiber and vital chemical message a good half-century prior to it coming back full circle,” says Benjamin Berns, director of direct marketing for Vita-Mix. “He was way ahead of his time.”

Market knowledge

John Barnard grew up with the company and learned the art of selling from the family patriarchs. An engineer by trade, he left Vita-Mix in 1962 to start companies of his own. He returned in 1981 and later became president of the company when his brother, Grover, retired in 1999.

Grover Barnard, with help from his mother, Ruth, expanded the business using new marketing techniques, such as focused catalog distribution. The elder Barnard men, Bill and W.G., preferred to grow the business the old-fashioned way — through direct demonstration. That tried-and-true sales staple hasn’t been phased out of the company by any stretch of the imagination. Vita-Mix’s 40-member independent sales force still attends more than 500 shows a year all over the world, preparing drinks and dishes with the machines.

“As far as the business aspects, (Ruth and Grover) were the ones that ultimately got into the direct mail and technical issues,” Barnard says. “Quite frankly, my father and my grandfather weren’t too interested in that. They were salesmen — very good salesmen. Very honest, very straightforward, but still salesmen.

The Barnards started to improve the performance and durability of their machines in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the improvements, the price increased, making it a tougher sell to the average customer. So the Barnard family learned more about the market and the consumers who would be interested in the high-end blending and mixing products.

They understood that careless mass mailings would drain their marketing budget faster than they could whip up a fruit smoothie. Precise market knowledge and persistent communication were key.

“When you’re marketing something that costs $450 and there’s zero prior awareness, a 24-page catalog featuring one product and a stellar sales message that will close you on the 24th page is required,” says Berns, who was recruited from KeyCorp’s marketing department. “A whole lot of education and understanding is required prior to the purchase decision being made.”

New directions

Perhaps you’ve eaten the McDonald’s McFlurry dessert or sipped a margarita at Chi Chi’s or a Mochaccino at Starbucks. Chances are they were blended with one of Vita-Mix’s commercial line mixing machines. That line didn’t exist until 1992, and now represents 40 percent of the company’s business.

Some of Vita-Mix’s earlier household models were used in restaurants and other food services industries, but they never lasted much longer than their competitors’ models. It wasn’t until commercial customers asked then-president Grover Barnard to design a blender durable enough to handle the constant use of the food service industry that his engineers designed the company’s first commercial mixing machines.

“We looked at the other ones that were out there and they were garbage; they didn’t hold up,” Barnard says. “We thought we could make a better one, and we did. We quickly put together a machine that was like a workhorse.”

With increased durability and quality comes a bigger price tag, which some in the industry thought would be the downfall of Vita-Mix’s Drink Machine. Not so, Barnard says.

“It turns out some of these establishments actually paid for their machines (in revenue) in a just few days,” Barnard says. “There is so much profit in the frozen drink business. So, it turned out it was a no-brainer. We showed them this is how long it takes to pay for itself instead of having to replace it.”

Web wise

If it weren’t for the eight-foot-long sign, you might miss Vita-Mix’s headquarters tucked away on a wooded residential street in Olmsted Falls.

“You can’t tell it’s this big” is the reaction of most visitors after a tour. It’s not so much a building but a series of hallways, which lead to offices, a warehouse and an assembly floor, then up some stairs to the executive offices. There are 25,000 square feet of building space spread over 10.5 acres and Barnard plans to add another 10,000 square feet for more offices.

The growth center of the company — the computer room — is housed in a small, inconspicuous enclave in one of the offices. Vita-Mix’s Web site, launched in October 1999, and e-commerce platform, launched in April 2000, is the third most profitable segment in the company. At a time when retailers are burning through capital to keep struggling Web sites alive, Vita-Mix’s is thriving because of the Barnard history of market knowledge.

Berns keeps the fire burning with twice a month e-prospecting campaigns, using e-mail to direct interested consumers to its Web site. Current customers click back to the site with e-continuity campaigns, which tell Vita-Mix owners of specials, new recipes, new Web site functions and clearance sales.

The user bulletin board, which offers customer recipes and food preparation tips, continues to draw Vita-Mix owners to the site and gives the company another chance to contact the customer after the purchase. Multiple contacts are key to increase brand recognition and referrals.

“It’s not a commodity impulse purchase,” Berns says. “Those who do acquire it become their own aficionados, developing their lifestyle around this most recent purchase, telling all of their friends and all of their family. The word-of-mouth for this particular machine … we can’t measure it, it’s so big.”

Quinetix, a Rochester, N.Y.-based direct marketing firm helped design Vita-Mix’s Internet strategy into the profit center it is now.

“For a small, privately owned company, the mix of direct marketing techniques that they do is on the level with a lot of the Fortune 500 companies that we’ve had experience with,” says Tricia Howe, a principal owner at Quinetix. “They’ve spent a lot of time analyzing their customer base and really getting to know who their customers are, and therefore who their target audience is, for prospect initiatives.”

Thanks to that market knowledge, Vita-Mix machines are in more than 1 million homes and distributed to more than 45 countries. So the next time you’re flipping through the cable channels and cursing W.G. Barnard for creating the infomercial, remember, it’s not his fault it worked so well. How to reach: Vita-Mix, (440) 838-4080; Quinetix, (716) 546-1860

Morgan Lewis Jr. ([email protected]) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.