For suddenly thrifty dot-coms looking to squeeze every penny out of their remaining funding, the key to building name recognition may not be Super Bowl or radio ads, but apples and oranges.

Courtesy of the Fruit Label Co., small labels branded with a business' logo can be slapped on fresh produce for a fraction of what it costs to advertise in traditional media.

The Tarzana-based company serves as an intermediary between fruit growers and advertisers. Businesses (or their ad agencies) looking to use the unusual advertising method can contact Fruit Label, which then makes the stickers and makes deals with fruit suppliers to slap them on their produce.

It works much like the ubiquitous Chiquita sticker on bananas but these labels are emblazoned with logos for TV shows, Web sites and other business ventures.

Since search engine Ask Jeeves partnered with the company in a campaign earlier this year, a number of other tech companies have looked into the unusual idea. "We have been inundated by dot-com companies," said Irv Weinhaus, the company's president.

The company does not plan to launch ads for other dot-coms this year, considering the size of its deal with Ask Jeeves, which has already ordered 200 million labels. Fruit Label is, however, currently hammering out deals for 2001 with dot-coms, movie and video companies, cable television networks, and other businesses that would like to reach a national audience. Weinhaus wouldn't reveal their names because contracts are still being negotiated.

Sudden growth spurt

When Fruit Label was founded two years ago, the average order size was 15 million labels; that has risen to a typical order of 60 million to 100 million. The cost, at $2.97 per thousand stickers, means a company would need to spend $297,000 to get its logo on 100 million pieces of fruit.

That's a little more than the $250,000 a company would have to pay for a 30-second commercial during ABC's hit game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" which reaches over 16 million homes across the country.

The obvious advantages of a radio or television ad are that a company has time to get detailed information about its services and products out to the public, whereas the labels are a quick hit. But unlike television or radio, you can't tune out a fruit label by surfing channels. The labels are viewed not only by consumers of the fruit, but also by shoppers who are merely passing through supermarket produce sections.

In addition, at least for apples, consumers have to pull off the labels before they eat the fruit, meaning the consumer has no choice but to interact with the ad.

"At the store, people pick (fruit) up, put it down," Weinhaus said. "They take it home, maybe put it in the middle of their family room or dining room table. Then, you have to remove the sticker to use the fruit." (Obviously, that's not the case with bananas and oranges.)

The idea for the company came when Weinhaus was lunching with a friend who was a studio executive with a movie to promote. Dessert came with an apple, which got the men talking about fruit labels.

Weinhaus, a veteran of the agriculture industry who at the time was an independent consultant handling mergers and acquisitions for agriculture companies, took on his friend as his first client at the Fruit Label Co., making 12 million stickers branded with the logo from the Universal Pictures flick "Liar, Liar."

Other clients include ad agency TBWA Chiat/Day, which used the label company for an ABC TV campaign featuring stickers on bananas when the network changed its logo color to a new signature yellow. Above the ABC logo, the stickers read, "Another fine use of yellow" and "TV. Zero calories."

But it wasn't until hooking up with Ask Jeeves that business at Fruit Label really started to take off. For the search engine, located on the Web at www.ask.com, the company made 100 million stickers for apples, oranges and bananas shipped in March and April. Another 100 million banana labels are on the way for a promotion slated to begin in August.

Each label pictures the cartoon butler Jeeves, who serves as the Ask Jeeves logo, along with a question related to the fruit on which the label is placed. (i.e., "How do you make an apple pie?" on apples.) Ask.com allows users to search by asking a question instead of punching in keywords, so the stickers give consumers the exact words needed to find the answer on Ask Jeeves.

Fruity questions

Westlake Village-based Dole Fruit Co. is one of the companies that has signed up to run Fruit Label stickers on its produce. Dole is also working on a cross-promotional campaign with Ask Jeeves.

The first co-promotion took place in March and April, with an Ask Jeeves sticker placed alongside each "Dole" label. The questions on the stickers related to bananas, and when users typed those questions in on www.ask.com, they were taken to the Dole Web site for the answer.

"This time, we're working on stickers that are more geared toward children, which is perfect for us because we have such a great kids' nutrition program," said Marta Maitles, spokeswoman for the Dole Fresh Fruit Co., a division of Dole. "A possible question could be, 'Where are bananas grown?' People always say it's a banana tree, but no, it's a plant, the world's largest lily. Other questions (could be), 'What is potassium?' or 'How do bananas get to my store?'"

Fruit suppliers that agree to use Fruit Label stickers are typically either paid a fee or given free stickers. Because all fresh fruit must contain a label with a number that is used for inventory purposes by supermarkets, Fruit Label can save fruit suppliers the cost of labeling their own merchandise by including this number along with the advertisement.

Weinhaus got his experience with fruit labeling more than 20 years ago, when he owned an avocado packing house.

"There were a lot of difficulties in labeling fruit," he said. "You couldn't get the stickers to stick to the fruit; there were more of them on the packing house floors (than on the avocados)."

He began working with a man who'd created a machine that made the stickers adhere to the fruit better. The patent was later sold to Sinclair Systems International Inc., which has since become the industry leader in produce labeling and accounts for about 70 percent of the billions of labels applied today.

"We hope to capture a small part of those billions by putting advertising on them," Weinhaus said.

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