NEW YORK — At a frisky 75, Bonne Bell is the grand dame of teen brands.

Yet even the most established in society must bend tradition sometimes to stay socially relevant. So Bonne Bell’s chief executive officer, Jess [Buddy] Bell, the third generation of Bells to run the Ohio-based cosmetics firm, has started seating a few new faces at the family table.

Over the past year, Bell, who took the reins of the company in 2000 from his father, Jess Bell Sr., the chairman, has been snapping up seasoned brand marketers from companies like Johnson & Johnson, Estée Lauder and L’Oréal. Its new media buyer was once the publisher of Teen magazine.

Last year, for the first time, the company branched out beyond its home in the nation’s heartland to open a showroom and business offices in SoHo. K. MacDonald Parris, associate director for Bonne Bell cosmetics, is based there, as is Brenda Lilly, senior marketing manager, public relations and promotions. Parris had been with Maybelline; Lilly spent time at Jane Cosmetics. The SoHo space — with polished wooden floors, white walls and lots of sunlight — enables Bonne Bell to tap New York talent, sharpen media relations and host retailer meetings.

Offices also were opened in London last spring and then in Oslo, Norway, joining Sydney and Vienna.

Meanwhile, at the home office in Lakewood, Ohio, Rex Talbott, who had worked on children’s brands at J&J, was brought on as associate director, marketing for Smackers. Also at headquarters, the company’s design team has been bulked up and now functions as an in-house ad agency. Hilary Bell, Buddy’s wife, oversees creative. Most manufacturing is done at its West Lake, Ohio, plant, which still boasts a senior citizen-run assembly line thatproduces store displays.

“Overall, our business is extremely strong. We know what we do well and focus on that,” said Buddy Bell, in a prepared statement for WWD. “But, we also know that the economy and the world is changing and so are our customers. We must evolve with that change to stay relevant and continue growing.”Its biggest product news for the year is still to come. Bonne Bell is expected to enter other categories in licensed deals to spread its wholesome brands. Smackers already has a license with Dr. Pepper and the flavor is proving to be one of its hottest sellers, according to Talbott. “The soda license will be leveraged above and beyond what we do in cosmetics,” he said. The company also is eyeing distribution in convenience and club stores.

While the teen cosmetics market has been teetering, Bonne Bell was able to keep its sales stable in 2002. According to Information Resources Inc., retail sales, excluding Wal-Mart, hovered at $82.5 million. According to its marketers, 90 percent of the company’s business is in North America, with 10 percent international.

Bell is already pleased with the reception its Bonne Bell and Smackers brands have received in their new markets. “We can say we are well on our way to being a truly global company,” he said.

With total mass cosmetics sales down some 6 percent in the first quarter, it is not expected to be an easy year for anyone. Bonne Bell is preparing to hold its ground through heavy advertising and sampling, while it develops a more worldly presence.

“We have stepped up spending in 2003 and the plan is to increase it again in 2004 to attract new users and support our existing winners and new products,” said Parris. This year, the company has allocated about 6 percent of sales on advertising, which translates to $4 million to $5 million. “We don’t do a lot of coupon promotions — the girls don’t read FSIs,” said Parris, noting, “They are not too interested in a discount.”

Bonne Bell has been keeping a steady hand on the industry as numerous companies have entered its field and have risen and fallen in the past few years. For this company, said Parris, “it is not just a five-year growth trend and it’s over.” Bonne Bell “is still number one in the marketplace and the number one spender on communications,” said Parris, who says the brand is favored by moms.

The company’s business is nearly evenly split between the Bonne Bell and Smackers brands, both are heavily rooted in lip but have been inching outward.The Bonne Bell brand has been gently branching into body with items like Glimmer Lights illuminating shimmer powder and a gel bronzer and glimmer powder bronzer. New this year is Sweet, a flavored shimmer powder in a shaker. Current top-selling lip items include Lip Rush, a sponge-on liquid gloss and Lip Devotion, which company executives claim was the first click-up lip package in the mass market. It is being extended this year with Lip Devotion Shimmer.

Smackers, born in 1973 with a fat lip balm, offers a range of flavored balms and lip glosses offering a hint of color. “It is the original fun lip gloss,” said Talbott, noting there are some 80 flavors in all, 30 of which contain an element of strawberry. The collection has been extended this year with “special occasion” type items like the Smackers Liquid Star Shine, an iridescent gloss. Whirlin Cosmic Dust is a new loose glitter for face and body in inch-high vials. “It is not heavy color for the eyes and falls within the realm of experimentation that moms are OK with,” said Talbott. “It is not ‘too grown up too fast.’ That is very important for the Smackers brand.”

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