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Talk of the bay

Lighting up the snack food market

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 14, 2004

Apparelmakers and retailers have long curried favor with do-gooders by contributing a cut of the profits to causes ranging from breast cancer screening to environmental preserves. Since 1982, for instance, some of the profits from Newman's Own products have gone to charity.

Now, Floridians are about to decide if firefighters will be the next charitable cause for an affinity brand.

A 24-product line of Firefighter Brand snack foods and soft drinks launches in Publix Super Markets in August. Part of the pitch: Instead of advertising, the Norwalk, Conn., distributors will contribute 25 percent of the profits to firefighter charities and buy fire apparatus that governments won't buy themselves.

The product line includes three firehouse chilis, two types of chips and drinks named Courageous Cola, Incendiary Citrus and Backdraft Root Beer.

Last week, the company handed a $10,000 check to Florida Professional Firefighter Association Charities, a wing of the state's biggest firefighters union. While the union has no connection to Firefighter Brand Products LLC, the company has promised to donate $1-million in the coming year to firefighter causes both national and local. It also hopes to sign moonlighting firefighters as sales representatives and get its products on menus in hundreds of Florida firehouses.

They even see Firefighter Brand products becoming a version of Girl Scout cookies sold at fire department fundraisers.

The brand was started by a Memphis firefighter in 1993 with the help of an Indiana bottler. He worked from a card table set up in Wal-Mart stores. The soft drink brand later appeared in selected food markets in Indiana, where it sometimes outsold Coke and Pepsi.

What's changed? The originators took their idea to a team of marketers last year that had been instrumental in getting the popular SoBe soft drink line off the ground and sold to Pepsico Inc. They raised $8-million to launch the Firefighter brand in Florida as the first step in creating a national brand.

They suspected the heroics of 9/11 lifted public perceptions of firefighters to their highest level in years.

A survey of 3,000 shoppers found 95 percent willing to buy a product that helped firefighters.

"As a brand, firefighters are very close to the top in trust and integrity," said Bruce Burke, chief marketing officer and a co-founder of the venture. "We're competing against soft drinks that use Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant as spokespeople."

[Last modified June 13, 2004, 10:38:09]

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