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February 28, 2012
Death of the Salesmen – Fuller Files for Chapter 11
You have to be of a certain age to remember the actual door-to-door salesmen of joke and fable, because times have changed. That happens more quickly in the marketing universe than others.

The concept of the door-to-door salesman traded on the idea that anyone could make money with a good product, hard work, and a comfortable pair of shoes. Oh, and a society that still had stay-at-home mothers who spent a lot of their time “keeping up” with the neighbors, being judged by how high the gleam of the linoleum on their kitchen floors was, and who had no Internet access. You wanted convenience? You waited for the door-to-door salesmen to ring your bell. No, really, that’s what it was like. Door-to-door salesmen visited homes weekly. From a marketing perspective, they were the thin edge of the sales sword for brands like Encyclopedia Britannica, Avon, and Fuller Brushes.

The Fuller Brush man made regular rounds in our Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City. Those were, of course, simpler times. No malls. Only seven TV broadcast stations, five newspapers that came out four times a day, and AM radio, so if you wanted the latest and greatest from the world of brushes and cleaning products, he was the go-to guy; or more accurately, he was the come-to-you guy. Convenience, primacy of product, and value made it a successful proposition. In the 1950s.

Alfred C. Fuller started the company in 1906, designing brushes and selling them door-to-door. Over the years, customers across the country became familiar with the iconic greeting, “I’m your Fuller Brush Man.” Dick Clark, Joe DiMaggio, and Dennis Quaid were all one-time Fuller Brush salesmen, and this model created one of America's most formidable, and then-iconic brands. And profitable, too. By the 1950s and ’60s they had annual sales of $100 million, which was real money back then.

But time, the marketplace, familial structure, and consumer expectations have changed and the cleaning-products maker has filed for bankruptcy less than two months after saying the company had “completely rebooted itself.” Last month Fuller Brush indicated that 2012 would be a “landmark year” with a new marketing campaign, among other changes.

Fuller has tried to clean up its own act recently, brushing up its image with a new website and a line of kitchen and bathroom cleaners and an expanded retailer relationship. But as Arthur Miller wrote of salesmen, “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they stop smiling back — that’s an earthquake.”

And for all of Fuller’s sprucing up of the brand, it was not enough to offset the seismic changes in the category or the consumer marketplace. Consumers haven’t smiled back and the company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this past Tuesday.

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Robert Passikoff, Founder and President of Brand Keys, Inc., has 35 years experience in strategic brand planning for B2B and B2C product and service categories. He pioneered work in loyalty and engagement, creating the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index®, the Brandweek Loyalty Leaders List, the Sports Fan Loyalty Index®, and the Women's Wear Daily Fashion Brand Engagement Index®.

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