NEW YORK — Sara Lee Intimate Apparel is its parent’s favorite offspring.

That’s because intimate apparel is "a category that has some of the most important products at Sara Lee Corp.," said Cary McMillan, chief executive officer of Sara Lee Branded Apparel, which oversees the Intimate unit like a big sister.

McMillan hosted a cocktail party and fashion show Nov. 5 of new Playtex products with Playtex president Ray Nadeau at the ABC Studios in Times Square.

Sara Lee’s Intimates and Underwear unit generated a 62.2 percent increase in its first-quarter operating income, despite nearly flat sales, as reported. The unit’s income skyrocketed to $206 million in the three months ended Sept. 28 from $127 million in the year-ago quarter.

McMillan said Sara Lee is so bullish about its intimates businesses that it is currently "making a multimillion dollar investment" to consolidate all design and sales functions for its stable of brands, which include Playtex, Bali, Wonderbra, Hanes Her Way and Just My Size, into one location at 260 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The creative and sales operations have largely been shared by facilities in Winston-Salem, N.C., and other New York offices. He said the annual 2003 budget for media spending for intimates will be increased 40 percent. A dollar figure was not available.

Meanwhile, the Playtex Apparel division is updating its portfolio of products with an aggressive $20 million advertising and marketing campaign. The campaign broke Sept. 30 with an eight-week national TV launch of the "new Playtex voice," which features spokesmodel Jerri Morrison wearing Playtex’s new 18 Hour Comfort Gel Strap bra, said Francine Braun, vice president of marketing at Playtex.

The 30-second spot is positioned around daytime and prime-time TV shows such as "Today," "Good Morning America," "Live With Regis and Kelly," "Days Of Our Lives," "The View," "Oprah," "Dr. Phil" and "American Dream." Playtex is spending $11 million on an annualized basis for the TV ads. The 18 Hour campaign will continue this spring with a second commercial introducing a new Gel Comfort Underwire bra.

Playtex has gleaned inspiration from a rich heritage of ads beginning with the Playtex Living Girdle, which became a household word in 1947 when it was first advertised in magazines, and broke the taboo of showing women’s undergarments on TV in 1954, as well as being the first manufacturer to air commercials in 1987 featuring live models wearing bras.During this month’s innerwear market, Playtex showed retailers a video of vintage Playtex TV ads with its new contemporary launch. In stark contrast, 18 Hour and Cross Your Heart ads from Eighties with Playtex spokeswomen Jane Russell and Eve Arden discreetly show the bras on shapeless looking forms or are discreetly hidden in drawers behind counter tops. One ad from the Seventies shows a slim woman standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean with tears running down her cheeks. The tagline was: "My girdle is killing me."

Examples of the new Playtex persona, which Braun described as "speaking to the physical and emotional needs of today’s woman with bras that are updated and more stylish," include taglines such as "A Woman Has Many Sides, We Support Everyone," and "No Two Women Are Alike, We Adjust Accordingly." The target consumer generally is full figured, averaging a dress size 12, up from a size 8 a decade ago.

There also will be a major launch this spring for the 37-year-old Cross Your Heart brand for average figures, a brand that Braun described as the "original contouring brand:" a micro-thin, foam-lined style with a heart jacquard pattern; a cotton-blend uplift style with natural shaping, and a satin lattice-pattern number with one-piece foam lining. The tagline for ads and point-of-sale materials will be "How Do You Shape Your World?"

Only You, a stitch-free sub-brand introduced in 2001 that incorporates proprietary hot-melt fusion technology, will be the first bra brand to launch a glue-fusion style of cotton and Lycra spandex this spring. The use of this technology was previously available only in Europe, said Braun.

"We are taking a comfort position in a seam-free, stitch-free Only You message," she said.

Braun noted that the 21-year-old Thank Goodness It Fits brand has been a "big success" this fall with a seamless, Santoni-engineered foam bra that is wire free. She said the Thank Goodness It Fits label for smaller-than-average half sizes had been a strong franchise at one time, but had not been updated or aggressively marketed in recent years.

"Research came back very loudly that the consumer liked the franchise," she said. "Women said, ‘We get it, it’s like shoes — a 7 1/2 oran 8 1/2.’ We are rethinking this entire strategy. These are not A cup or B cup bras that are cut down. They are graded up to a size." She added that the marketing platform will be "Half Sizes Too, For A More Perfect Fit."In another move to grow the Playtex franchise, which is sold in all channels of distribution, is the introduction of a new sub-brand called Playtex Full-Figure, which is aimed exclusively at mass merchants like Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart. In stores since May, taglines include, "Feel Beautiful Bras" and "Alluring Style and Amazing Fit."

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