Salt Seller Sprinkles On the Marketing

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The Grain & Salt Society, a sea salt producer, hopes the celebrations around its 30-year-old French-made staple Celtic Sea Salt turn out to be sweet.

Marketing planned by the Asheville, NC, organization includes a doubling of catalog mailings, a package redesign and product launches. This activity comes just as the natural foods market in the United States reaches the mainstream.

"Ten years ago, health food was a marginalized market of people who lived a very strict lifestyle," said Dennis Duffy, the society's chief operating officer. "Today's consumers are educated about the benefits of healthy foods. We are trying to provide consumers with better information and educate them on the benefits of eating sea salt."

The Grain & Salt Society has more than doubled its catalog mailing this season, to 160,000 books in May from 75,000 last year. This increase involves adding an outside list along with mailing the society's existing database. The normal biannual drop will be increased to a quarterly as well.

On the package side, the redesign includes a new label that boasts the salt as "doctor recommended" -- a first in the salt industry.

The society's product line comprises sea salt from France's Brittany region, coconut oil, coconut flour and healthy snack bars. The core products are its soaps, which retail at $5 a bar, and three types of sea salt: one coarse, one fine and a highly refined one, which sell for $5.50 through 17 for an 8-ounce container.

Customers range from chefs to doctors as well as a large demographic of well-educated sixty-somethings, who take the salt on their physician's recommendation.

The society's products are available at www.celticseasalt.com and in 1,400 health food stores such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Earth Fare. The salt also is an ingredient in the French Meadow Bakery bread.

Fifty percent of sales are direct to consumer, with the rest from retailers, food manufacturers and restaurants. Of the retail sales, two-thirds come via the telephone and the others from online. However, both channels influence each other, Mr. Duffy said.

Competition is fragmented. Other high-end sea salts sold online include those from Portugal, the Himalayas and Japan. In stores, Celtic Sea Salt competes with a lower-quality sea salt, but the lower price point of the rival products is a challenge for the Grain & Salt Society.

The organization's traditional marketing strategy involves offering annual memberships that give clients product stock priority, discounts and newsletters. It also produces educational brochures and sample packages, which are distributed in grocery stores and through affiliated doctors.

Close attention is paid to Web content usability and design, shunning typical search engine strategies. Even so, this approach has landed the retailer a second ranking on Google and fourth on Yahoo for a "Sea Salt" search.

Other new marketing efforts include an online affiliate program. Affiliates -- mostly doctors and chefs -- can link their pages to the Grain & Salt site and receive a commission on sales generated through such links.

To top it all, the society's sea salt recently was named in "Salt Your Way to Health," a book by Michigan-based doctor David Brownstein.

Meanwhile, a new line of salt and pepper grinders launches this month, marketed to restaurant chefs in North Carolina and Tennessee. This effort will introduce the line and test user feedback. An inside sales team will call on existing restaurant customers.

"Looking forward, we have a number of initiatives to follow up with, including these new marketing strategies, opportunities to sell our product to a major food manufacturer and to test our product in mainstream grocery stores," Mr. Duffy said. "If things go well, there is potential to double the business."

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