New Pig Corporation: Even small companies can build big brands

Usually when I write about companies that have achieved extraordinary results in building brand images for business-to-business products and services, I’m describing large companies such as General Electric, Caterpillar or IBM. In fact, people working for small enterprises often share the frustration that their meager resources are totally consumed by the basics of b-to-b marketing communications: brochures, trade shows, direct mail, and so on.

And I understand that frustration, at least to some extent. But just because you’re up to your eyeballs in sales promotion requirements doesn’t necessarily mean the kiss of death for branding. Here’s a great example of a small company that started out 18 years ago with a brand-building attitude and has never wandered far from the path.

The company is called New Pig Corp. and it’s located in Tipton, Pa. (It would have been “The Pig Corporation” but surprisingly that name was taken when co-founder Ben Stapelfeld went to register with the secretary of state.) New Pig’s first and only product in 1985 was an absorbent sock, or “pig,” which consisted of ground-up corn cob bits stuffed into panty hose to sop up machine oil spills on industrial plant floors.

From the beginning, Stapelfeld and his partners decided to have fun with the company and its image. The toll-free 800 phone line was 1-800-HOT-HOGS. Customers were “partners in grime” (PIG). When the company developed enough products to produce a simple catalog, it was called a “Pigalog.”

Occasionally, they went too far, like the time they produced a mailer with the headline “More suck for the buck.” And Southerners didn’t like the company’s pig character dressed like Elvis either.

But most people liked the fun approach a lot. And because New Pig put the highest emphasis on responsiveness and listening, the product line grew every time a customer asked for something special to solve another nasty leak or spill problem.

Today, the company offers more than 3,200 products, and it’s the unquestioned leader in spill and leak containment–they created that category and they own it! The 2003 Pigalog is 412 pages and features more than 300 new products not included in the previous issue.

But I’m getting ahead myself, because like most success stories, this one didn’t happen overnight. Stapelfeld and his partners had bought the unprofitable industrial cleaning division of Downers Grove, Ill.-based ServiceMaster Co., thinking their “proprietary” absorbent sock would make a big difference. Most of the 64 franchisees thought it was a joke. Forty eight left immediately, and the rest were gone soon thereafter. First-year sales were only $350,000.

So New Pig decided to try direct marketing. They bought a list of 3,000 plant maintenance people and New Pig mailed them a special “Box of Seven” absorbent socks mailer. The sample products were sent free of charge in September 1985 along with an offer to request an additional 40 socks for a 45-day free trial. One hundred people took them up on the special offer. After the trial period, each prospect was called to see if he or she was satisfied, and if so, sent an invoice for $78. The customer still had 30 days to pay, so it was actually 75 days net. By December, the direct mail program had risen to 25,000 names and was simply a letter offering 40 socks for a 45-day no-obligation trial. Six months later, the mailing program had accelerated to 250,000 names, and the New Pig direct marketing program was off and running.

The thing that makes the New Pig story different, however, is the distinctive personality the owners created for the company. It would have been much easier to play it safe and emphasize product features or low price, and I’m sure they did plenty of that, but they went further. Their corporate personality made customers want to come back for more. And they invented cartoon characters, such as “Squeal Armstrong” (first pig on the moon), “Hambo, “Pigmalion” and “Chief Sitting Boar.” They gave away pig hats with snouts, ears and curly pigtails. And “Oink” T-shirts. And “pigskin” footballs. And, of course, piggy banks and cuddly stuffed pigs.

Magazine editors loved the freshness of the New Pig approach, and company representatives were soon being portrayed as industry spokespersons for an industry that New Pig was, in fact, creating as it went along.

Every Pigalog included customer testimonials, many with innovative suggestions for using New Pig products. They even got a few customers to pose for photographs with real pigs. But the really neat thing was when customers started getting into the act without being asked. One lady got married in her pig hat. Another customer requested pig hats for his company softball team. People started taking pictures of themselves in pig hats while on vacation and sending them to their customer service rep. One even snapped a shot of New Pig socks being used to stop window leaks at the Palace of Versailles in France.

So you see, much like Harley Davidson’s passionate hog owners, New Pig has cultivated a legion of enthusiastic hog owners, too–170,000 of them in 40 countries. But don’t get the idea that silliness is all you need for success in this or any other business.

Behind the scenes, New Pig is all business. The company has invested millions in inventory and data management systems. And if you go to its Web site (www.newpig.com), you’ll find technical papers, application bulletins and government regulations on everything related to spills and handling of hazardous materials.

“We have to be twice as good because of our fun image,” says Nino Vella, president and CEO. “The brand image keeps people coming back and gives us the benefit of the doubt if there’s ever a problem. But we still have to perform to the highest possible level.”

“Along with our huge database of active customers, the New Pig brand is our No. 1 asset,” Vella concludes. With sales now exceeding $100 million, I’d say that’s definitely something to squeal about.