By  on January 28, 2008

THESE DAYS, ANY COMPANY THAT WANTS TO ACHIEVE cult status — or just make a truckload of money — views "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as the ultimate stage. Products featured on one of Oprah's "favorite things" episodes have sold out in mere hours, while others have enjoyed a long wave of publicity after receiving her seal of approval.

The outcome was no different for Marchon and its stable of designer eyewear and sunwear under such brands as Calvin Klein, Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld, Disney, Coach, Nike, Michael Kors, Pucci and Nautica. Although it came as a surprise to the executives at Marchon that the company's glasses would be featured on Winfrey's "favorite things for summer" show, the brand had previously built a relationship with Oprah and she has been photographed wearing frames manufactured by them (usually Fendi).

Backstage at the show, Marchon set up "Oprah's Sunglass Boutique," which provided 350 members of the audience with an "eyewear makeover" by 10 Marchon sales representatives. On camera, Oprah modeled frames from Calvin Klein, Fendi, Michael Kors and Sean John.

"We had a huge spike in sales from that [show] — it certainly gave our sales force a lot to talk about," said Robert Schienberg, senior vice president of public relations, who also appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "The View" on behalf of the company. "She went through every brand that we cover, frame-by-frame. It was amazing."

In the marketing mix at Marchon, celebrities like Winfrey have become a key part of building the business. "It helps consumers to see a frame on a face you know," he added. "It's the best way to communicate a new style."

The Long Island-based company has been advertising steadily for about 20 years but only focusing on "celebrity outreach" during the past decade. Still, that puts the company ahead of its competition. And Schienberg maintains that Marchon's approach to celebrities is what sets it apart. "We don't do gifting suites or gift bags," he said. He also doesn't try to build a collegial relationship with celebrities, noting that he becomes more of a concierge than a confidant. In fact, Schienberg has been invited into the Hollywood homes of many celebrities, because they want his help, but also know he is discreet. "Everyone loves a good eyewear makeover. We provide catering and drinks and they love the fact that we're never intrusive. There is no pedalling to celebrities; often they come to us and that's a nice position to be in." The brand also limits the number of starlets it works with, to "A-listers" and "fresh faces.""We want relevancy," said Schienberg. "We always have a very high level of musicians, actors and writers." For instance, Helen Mirren, an Academy Award winner last year, was pictured wearing glasses during the awards circuit, in addition to Cate Blanchett. "We got to [Mirren] before everyone else," Schienberg said. And the company is currently setting up a meeting with "Juno" breakout star Ellen Page. After all, the Screen Actors Guild awards were held Sunday night, and should be followed — depending on the writers' strike — by the Grammys and Oscars. "Variety wanted to speak with me about how this is all affecting our business," Schienberg said. "The truth is, we've been through much worse and at the end of the day, the sun always comes out and people need sunwear."

In addition to its celebrity outreach efforts, Marchon also has come up with various promotions, such as creating a limited edition Vespa with Coach fabrics. Eight different Coach-inspired Vespas were built, all with the aim of driving customers back to the brand — and its frames. One Vespa was featured on "Ellen." During the show, each member of the audience received a pair of Coach sunglasses and the Vespa was eventually auctioned off to benefit a charity — a move that certainly didn't hurt the brand, either.

"We have a relationship with the show and we launch a collection each year with Ellen," said Schienberg.

Another promotion involved building an old-fashioned photo booth for Michael Kors. "It was built out of chrome and wood and let people wear the glasses and then get photographed, to see which pair looked best on them," said Donna Rollins, vice president of corporate brands. The photo booth also made its way into the Accessories Council Excellence awards and backstage at the Oscars.

Marchon also markets its own proprietary product, called Flexon, which has a bendable lens and is as old as the company. David Letterman wore Flexon on the cover of Esquire and Bill Gates was photographed for Time magazine wearing Flexon frames.

The firm tries to keep its marketing current vis-à-vis pop culture references, such as a commercial it did a few years ago to capitalize on the speed dating craze. In the commercial, a man told his potential dates that he was a Flexon sales rep — which suddenly made him more attractive to the women he met.The ideas behind the celebrity coverage, promotions and events, from the Vespas to the photo booths, can be credited to Marchon's in-house creative agency, but that wasn't always the case. In the beginning, the company farmed out its marketing work to a Long Island-based agency, Arthur Krammer. At that time, in the early Eighties, the agency didn't take on private companies as clients, but persistence from Marchon won out and the eyewear manufacturer became Krammer's first private client. As one of its first tasks, the agency was asked to decide on a name for the company. They came up with Chi Chi — which wasn't warmly received by chief executive Al Berg.

"We told them they had to do better than that," said Rollins.

The next name presented was Marchon — which, coincidentally, was also the maternal name of one of Berg's grandparents (except the spelling was Marshon).

Krammer continued to work for the company for five years, then the responsibilities were moved in-house. Since then, Marchon has won a slew of awards, including more than two dozen from the Association of the Graphic Arts. And it wasn't pictures of Mirren or Blanchett that won the awards — the company relied on direct mail and its point-of-purchase work, such as displays at optical stores.

Businesses like Coach and Calvin Klein rely on Marchon, as opposed to doing the work on their own, "because we know what buyers want," said Rollins. She noted, however, that companies often shoot their own images to save money and maintain more control over their media presence.

Marchon also trains employees at stores where eyewear is sold, so the retailers can properly educate potential customers. Calvin Klein, for example, had Marchon train store employees to sell frames as a package deal, with the case and a special box. "He understood it's all part of an experience," Rollins said.

Marchon, which had projected sales of approximately $500 million in 2007 for its frame business, spends $40 million on marketing and advertising each year, with half going to consumer magazines and outdoor advertising and half dedicated to trade advertising and trade shows, events, point-of-purchase advertising and sample bags.The company launched a Web site more than 10 years ago, but it is still more of an informational site than anything else. Rollins said Internet advertising hasn't played a key role in the marketing budget to this point, since eyewear is still sold more through optical chains and department stores.

Rollins doesn't expect any ad dollars to shift to the Web either. "We'd rather do something with Neiman Marcus, or be part of a catalogue. On the optical side, we are really driven by point of purchase."

And, quite possibly, those big-time celebrities.

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