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Published: Sunday, 11/13/2005

Big pink guy achieves silver

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
With pro golfer Paula Creamer, the Panther takes a practice swing at last year's Farr. With pro golfer Paula Creamer, the Panther takes a practice swing at last year's Farr.
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As longtime celebrity representative for Owens Corning, he seems to be everywhere yet has managed to avoid public controversy.

There have been no messy marital crack-ups.

No dustups outside Los Angeles nightclubs.

No rumors of steroid use.

He is the big dog at OC: the Pink Panther.

Twenty-five years ago, marketing executives who were seeking to distinguish the Toledo firm's attic and wall insulation from the competition turned to a fading movie franchise launched in 1963 called the Pink Panther.

Key performances in the original Blake Edwards farce were by David Niven as a jewel thief, Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau, and the Pink Panther, an animated feline who made a brief appearance in the opening credits to the accompaniment of a catchy score by Henry Mancini.

The character made its debut in the 1963 film and appeared on its posters, left. For OC, it is featured in advertisements. The character made its debut in the 1963 film and appeared on its posters, left. For OC, it is featured in advertisements.
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The Panther was hip, he was cool, and most important for OC - which was spending $10 million a year to color its insulation an eye-grabbing hue associated with little girls and cotton candy - he was pink.

"He has become an important part of our brand," said Christian Nolte, director of strategic marketing for the manufacturer of building materials and fiberglass. "The Pink Panther is as relevant today as he was 25 years ago. He brings our trademark color pink to life."

Within a decade of adopting the furry mascot, company surveys showed that shoppers preferred OC's pink insulation by a ratio of five to one over the closest competition. By the end of the 1990s, the edge grew to sevenfold.

"Clearly, that is not all on the shoulders of the Pink Panther," Mr. Nolte said. "But his role is clear."

And because he was an established character, he was instantly recognized, unlike company-created mascots such as the Pillsbury Doughboy, introduced in 1965; Betty Crocker, in 1921; and the Jolly Green Giant, in 1928.

Now, whether OC executives like it or not, the Panther has become a big part of the identity of the Fortune 500 firm, which is reorganizing under federal bankruptcy laws.

"It's a strong connection," said company spokesman Jason Saragian, who came to the firm this year.

When friends failed to instantly recognize OC's name when he told them about his new job, he would add:

"You know, Pink Panther insulation." Bingo. Bells would go off.

And the mascot has strolled far beyond OC's insulation division.

He has appeared in dozens of print ads for numerous company products; in TV spots during shows such as ABC's Extreme Makeover; on golf balls given to customers; and in the form of miniature stuffed animals distributed for promotional purposes.

He is a fixture at the Ladies Professional Golf Association's annual Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic tournament in Toledo.

Because he is recognized globally, he has traveled beyond U.S. borders, with his likeness appearing in a 40-foot display at Paris trade shows, and, in person, at a meeting with officials in China.

"Between us and our customers, there are hundreds of costumes," Mr. Nolte said. And there are rules for those who take on the role. "First and foremost, the Panther doesn't talk," the marketing executive explained.

Despite his ubiquity, the Panther's job security hasn't always been certain.

Under now-retired Chief Executive Glen Hiner in the mid-1990s, marketing officials considered firing him. They questioned whether the Panther conveyed the company image they were seeking.

People familiar with the internal debate say the officials also reportedly weren't happy about the hefty payments demanded by MGM Studios' licensing arm, which owns the image. (Officials won't discuss the size of those payments or other aspects of the licensing deal with MGM other than to acknowledge that the current six-year agreement has one year to go.)

But the Panther was spared.

And now his job seems secure. "We have had a fantastic 25-year relationship [with MGM] and we expect that to continue into the foreseeable future," said Mr. Nolte.

Officials at MGM in Los Angeles declined to discuss terms of the studio's agreement with OC.

Besides the Pink Panther movies, the character has appeared in cartoons and a comic strip.

OC's contract gives it exclusive rights to the character only among building materials manufacturers.

As a result, there is Pink Panther laundry detergent, Pink Panther dishwashing compounds, Pink Panther toys, and Pink Panther chewing gum, according to a directory that traces trade names.

And a few months ago, the character began showing up in TV spots and on packaging for Sweet'n Low sugar-substitute.

"It's working great," said Michael Pedone, a spokesman for Cumberland Packing Corp., Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sweet'n Low, which uses pink packaging, began negotiating with MGM after being approached about a product-placement deal for a new Pink Panther movie, due in theaters in February.

The Panther has been a "super icon" for OC and is helping Cumberland Packing attract attention for its product, Mr. Pedone said. "The minute we put the Pink Panther on the box, people started looking at Sweet'n Low in a different way," he said.

OC officials say they welcome the high-profile marketing campaign, explaining that it "will help with recognition of the Pink Panther over a wider demographic."

However, Bob Beach, a Toledo artist who worked for many years as a marketing consultant, contends that the Sweet'n Low campaign "will tend to dilute the value of the mascot for Owens Corning."

As a freelancer working for OC's advertising department in the 1970s, Mr. Beach and then-partner Mike Zapiecki first suggested the company use the Pink Panther.

"The company was spending $10 million a year to make its insulation pink to stand out from the yellow insulation of competitors," he said. "It was one of the branding devices they were using."

Mr. Zapiecki, who today runs Toledo's Team Z Marketing, recalled that after a few phone calls he was able to track down the owners of the character and learned that it was available for licensing.

But OC executives decided the cost - $100,000 - was too high for the one-time direct-mail campaign that was under consideration, the two men said.

But the Pink Panther idea didn't die.

After viewing a presentation by OC's national ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, New York, executives adopted the character as its insulation mascot in August, 1980.

Before inking the deal, however, marketing officials wanted to make sure the character was sufficiently well known. As a test, they asked mall shoppers to identify various characters from cards that also included Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog. "The Pink Panther passed the test and was quickly hired," OC's spokesman said.

Among firms that helped OC with use of the Panther over the years was Toledo's Lesniewicz & Associates.

Artists there became experts in drawing the character to maintain his "sleek, sly" image. At one point, United Artists, the MGM unit that then controlled the character, asked the agency to put together 30 pages of guidelines for use by other artists.

Even now, however, Mr. Lesniewicz often sees mistakes in the way the Panther is drawn. Missing freckles and errant whiskers are frequent problems, he said.

OC made the right choice in hiring the Panther, said Mr. Zapiecki, although, for a time, he was miffed that he and his former business partner weren't given credit for the idea.

"Owens Corning is the Pink Panther company," he explained. "It was a way to establish their brand in the mind of consumers."

Still, he questions if the Panther will be as useful in the future as it has been in the past. Many younger people are unfamiliar with the Pink Panther movies and cartoons, he noted.

"It's starting to wear a little thin," Mr. Zapiecki said of the mascot. "I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 10 years they shift to some other identifier to get away from that."

Not so, insist OC officials. Studies have shown that 90 percent of Americans 18 to 49 recognize the character. The upcoming movie, starring Steve Martin, will likely boost the Panther's fame, they add.

"He is a valuable brand cue for Owens Corning," said Mr. Nolte.

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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