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Gardenburger Takes ‘Seinfeld’ Ad

May 8, 1998 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ OK, here’s the idea: We make burger patties entirely out of vegetables. Then we spend all we’ve got to advertise them on the biggest TV show of the year.

It may sound like a scheme Kramer dreamed up on ``Seinfeld,″ but a company called Gardenburger is gambling that it might just be crazy enough to work.

When the much-anticipated final episode of ``Seinfeld″ airs May 14, the advertisers spending up to $1.7 million for 30-second spots will include such megabillion-dollar behemoths as Budweiser, Coors, Visa and MasterCard, but also the relatively tiny Gardenburger.

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Considering that the Portland-based company had just $57 million in sales last year, the launch of a five-week ad campaign that will end up costing nearly $14 million is enough to make any CEO sweat.

But Gardenburger chief Lyle Hubbard believes it’s a safe bet that the company’s half a minute in the spotlight will pay off with skyrocketing sales.

``I think it’s a ‘will be,’ not a ’might be,‴ Hubbard said.

``If we do this right and we introduce you to this whole notion of veggie burgers ... you will associate our name with that category, and forever after, somebody is going to have a really hard time dislodging that from your mind.″

But after years of watching Jerry, George and Elaine gulp down corned beef sandwiches, Cheerios and chips by the bagful, will ``Seinfeld″ viewers really be able to stomach a veggie burger?

Hubbard is confident they will. After all, he came to Gardenburger two years ago from Quaker Oats, where he helped transform rice cakes from a ``not-much-better-than-Styrofoam″ dud into a $200 million-a-year winner.

To Hubbard, plunking down big bucks for advertising is a calculated risk to push Gardenburger out of its established restaurant and cafeteria niche and onto the mainstream grocery shelves.

The publicly traded company has raised an additional $15 million in capital to help cover the cost of the ad blitz, and investors have a lot to gain if the strategy works.

Gardenburger’s research indicates that winning brand-name recognition and getting a jump in the emerging market could mean $400 million to $600 million a year in sales _ or up to 3,300 percent growth.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on a show about nothing.

Gardenburger has prepared three spots (they haven’t said which one will air on ``Seinfeld″), all of them retro-style cartoons showing people pushing away meat to munch on vegetable burgers. Actor Samuel L. Jackson supplies the narrative, and they all end with the tag line ``Eating Good Just Got Great.″

``It’s definitely a high-risk strategy,″ said John Rogers, who follows the company at Jensen Securities in Portland. ``But they have a good product and the only way they can succeed is to get their message out there.″

Since Portland restaurateur Paul Wenner launched the company in 1985 by turning a homemade recipe into a hamburger substitute, Gardenburger has built up a solid business among institutional food markets and has been steadily expanding into restaurants such as Denny’s.

But Hubbard figured that Wenner’s longtime sales pitch _ eat meatless and help save the planet, along with its cattle _ was not the message consumers wanted to hear.

Hubbard says the aging baby boomers among the estimated 95 million who will watch the last ``Seinfeld″ episode want to know what a product will do for them.

He wants them to lock onto the notion that a patty made of brown rice, bulgur wheat, onions, mushrooms, low-fat cheese, onions and spices is just what their doctors ordered to cut fat and eat smart. The burgers have a ninth of the fat of regular ground beef and mimic the look and feel, if not the taste, of the real thing.

The TV spot also will be repeated on shows including ``ER,″ ``Home Improvement,″ ``Touched By An Angel,″ ``Ellen,″ ``Spin City″ ``Third Rock From The Sun″ and ``Oprah″ _ all aimed at a key target audience, women between the ages of 25 and 54. But once the blitz is over, it’s over. The $14 million is the entire ad budget for the year.

``The same amount of money spread over a much longer period of time wouldn’t have nearly the impact,″ said Marian Freistad, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon graduate business school.

Gardenburger’s research has shown that roughly six out of 10 American households that have never heard of its veggie patty would try it and likely come back for more if they find it tastes good, helps improve their diet and is convenient.

``If we are right that there would be 58 million households that are potential targets, and each household potentially can consume $7 to $10 in sales each year, it’s a very large market,″ Hubbard said.

Jeanne Hanley and Michael Matty of the market research firm Capital Reflections in North Granby, Conn., say various studies indicate the market for meatless foods is growing.

They say ``healthy foods″ _ no longer just ``health food″ sought by vegetarians because it has become so mainstream _ a $10 billion a year industry and is growing at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent.

The trick for Gardenburger is to build consumer loyalty fast before other big brands _ Heinz, Quaker or Campbell’s _ take it away.

Enter, or more correctly, exit Seinfeld.

``You won’t have it on in the background,″ Hubbard said of the upcoming final episode. ``You’re creating an event to watch it. You’re either going to a Seinfeld party, or you’re holding a Seinfeld party. So it’s an event you’re going to pay attention.″

The high-spending ad campaign has already caught the attention of grocery chain buyers, who see the move as a signal the company is serious about growing its market and investors.

``They have placed more chips on the board in regard to Seinfeld than maybe other companies might choose,″ said Les Childress of Childress Investment Research in Seattle.

``But you look at the demographics of those viewers and you see that a high percentage of them are potential customers, so I think it’s a very shrewd move.″