Screensavers Extend Tabasco's Flavor to Desktop

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McIlhenny Co. has found another hot product besides its Tabasco pepper sauce: screensavers.


Since 1998, consumers have downloaded about 454,000 screensavers from tabasco.com, also known as PepperFest. Another 50,000 to 200,000 downloads are estimated as a result of pass-around.


"Even people who don't like the product will admit, 'Hey, it's Tabasco,' it's something most people like in a roundabout way," said Brad Brewster, creative director of Bent Media, the New Orleans interactive agency of Tabasco maker McIlhenny Co.


"We want to give consumers something they can download to personalize their computers and extend the brand to their desktops," Brewster said.


A multitude of marketers use screensavers. But McIlhenny has to work extra hard.


Still family owned after 135 years, the Avery Island, LA, company now fights brands like Red Hot, Louisiana Hot Sauce and Crystal Hot Sauce. These rivals often sell anywhere from 39 cents to 59 cents (vs. $1.20 average price for Tabasco) each for packs larger than Tabasco's.


More critically, many of Tabasco's rivals -- 300 to 400 SKUs of hot sauces are on store shelves nationwide -- are owned by food marketers with big budgets.


Tabasco has a few things in its favor. One is its preparation. Other hot sauce brands are cayenne pepper-based, picked from the fields, ground and quickly thereafter bottled for shipment out of the factory.


But Tabasco is based on Avery Island seeds that are sown in Central and South America as well as at home. They are picked, ground up with a little salt and stored in rehabilitated oak Jack Daniels whisky barrels. The mix is left to ferment for three years before the product becomes sauce in a bottle.


Another advantage for Tabasco is its Louisiana legacy. The Southern state has festivals galore on sugar cane, jazz, oysters and sweet potatoes. That approach is reflected on Tabasco.com, which seems to be in a perpetual state of pepper festivity.


"What we wanted to do was capture some of that festival spirit and transplant that into the site, and hence the name PepperFest," said Martin Manion, New Orleans-based vice president of corporate marketing at McIlhenny.


For marketing, McIlhenny uses national print and television ads, label ads, keyword buys on search engines and monthly e-mail newsletters to its opt-in list of 80,000 consumers.


Even Tabasco.com is constantly refreshed to encourage repeat visits. The site sells 400 SKUs, one-tenth of them hot sauces and specialty condiments. The rest is merchandise ranging from golf shirts and ties to toys and cooking items. A catalog supports, publishing three times a year.


But it is screensavers that uniquely help build Tabasco brand equity and exposure on Internet-connected computers.


"So screensavers become tactically one of those things that we thought we could do that fit the personality of our Tabasco sauce to entertain people and remind them to come back to PepperFest on a regular basis," Manion said.


The Pepper Plant screensaver is the newest in the animated series, introduced last year. Pepper plants grow and spread across a representation of scenic Avery Island. Fluffy clouds blow by in a bright blue sky, and the river slowly rolls along. It is meant to be relaxing.


An estimated 45,000 users have downloaded the Pepper Plant screensaver.


The older Mardi Gras screensaver's copy says it all: "Whether you can make it to the Big Easy on Fat Tuesday or just wish you could, download this free Mardi Gras animated screen saver with the tastiest Tabasco parade floats, throws and more. Get ready to put your arms up in the air and scream, 'throw me somethin', mister.'"


That one was downloaded 150,000 times, making it the most popular of the three existing Tabasco screensavers.


The oldest of the trio is the Dance Hall screensaver, downloaded 129,000 times. Popular demand from users led McIlhenny to add the tunes of Louisiana favorites Beau Jocque and Zydeco Hi-Rollers. It includes dancing alligators, conga lines, an eating contest and an old geezer getting down with a washboard and spoon. And there is lots of Tabasco to go around.


Another screensaver on NASCAR was up in 1998 and 1999, until McIlhenny yanked its Tabasco sponsorship. That Team Tabasco screensaver was downloaded 130,000 times.


The screensavers are available by clicking on the "Arts Pavilion" link in the Venues menu of the site home page. The company occasionally displays screensaver blurbs directly on the home page, too.


This third quarter, another screensaver debuts that will let users pull content from Tabasco.com onto the desktop.


Almost like PointCast, the failed push-technology online news service, the new screensaver will be light -- around 2 megabytes in size with Flash. Tabasco-influenced recipes, monthly menus, content linking to sections of the site, and cooking and food items will feature. Clicking on the screensaver's content or icons will launch the user's browser.


Like all the screensavers, the new version will be based on Screentime technology. Algorithms let the screensavers grow randomly, with multiple scenes to avoid frequent repetition.


Consumers who download Tabasco screensavers tend to be the typical Tabasco customer: ages 30 to 45, equally split between the sexes and fond of spicy food, according to an internal study.


Not only have the screensavers taken on a life of their own with a high pass-along rate, but what began as a branding exercise now has direct marketing repercussions.


"The screensaver section soon became one of our biggest gateway pages into the site," Brewster said. "We kind of assumed that would happen. But it also became one of the biggest referrals into the Tabasco country store, which totally took me by surprise."


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