Mr. Rooter is spending $2 million on TV ads; Ben Franklin launches an audacious experiment.

Roto-Rooter is the only plumbing company with widespread public recognition, thanks to its famed "troubles down the drain" jingle that people can't shake out of their minds even if they want to. Two of the industry's franchise operations aim to change that.

With Roto-Rooter all but out of the franchising business, The Dwyer Group's Mr. Rooter has become by far the largest plumbing franchise operation in the United States with some 225 franchise owners operating more than 330 locations at last count. It's a profitable business and growing, but grappling with two nagging issues -- establishing Mr. Rooter's name recognition and making people understand that the company offers all plumbing services, not just the drain cleaning associated with the "Rooter" label.

Mr. Rooter gets confused in the public mind not only with Roto-Rooter, but also ServiceMaster's Rescue Rooter unit and various other plumbing/drain-cleaning firms that found the "rooter" tag irresistible. Now the marketing challenge is for those firms to differentiate themselves from one another. Mr. Rooter is spending some $2 million on a national cable TV ad campaign to do so.

The ads will run 53 times in 2003 on stations such as The Discovery Channel, Lifetime, Food Network, TNT, HGTV, A&E and the NBC "Today" show. "No ordinary plumber" is the theme of the campaign, whose ads tell consumers Mr. Rooter deserves the title "Mister." It's a clever premise, I think. The commercials also drill home that this is a full-fledged plumbing company capable of performing all the residential services associated with plumbers.

Although it's a lot of money to the average mom-and-pop shop, $2 million is a modest budget for national TV advertising. Mr. Rooter's director of marketing Stacey Gertz emphasized that its value increases when integrated with local advertising purchased by Mr. Rooter franchisees.

"The national ad campaign is the umbrella and meant to build the brand identity," she said. "We're offering a tremendous amount of support materials for the franchise owners to tie in at the local level." These include mailers, newspaper ad inserts, billboards and radio spots. Many of these materials feature TV home improvement show host Joanne Liebler.

Phantom Ads

Meantime, an audacious advertising experiment is taking place in various cities around the country by the upstart Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchise.

Radio stations that volunteer to participate will for 52 weeks run 21 "mentions" per week using the simple phrase " ... brought to you by Benjamin Franklin, the punctual plumber." The stations may run the mentions at any time of day they choose, as long as they agree to run them 21 times a week for a year.

Benjamin Franklin is a plumbing service franchise owned by Ven Vest Venture Capital, which also operates Plumbers' Success International and several HVAC affinity groups. At last count Ben Franklin had 28 franchises in 18 states.

The radio ads are running only in cities where a Benjamin Franklin franchise does not exist. No other media will be used, nor will there be any listings of the company in local phone books or other publications. The only place people are likely to hear about Benjamin Franklin Plumbing is through the low-key radio plugs.

At the end of a year's time, Ven Vest will commission an awareness survey measuring unaided recall of the Benjamin Franklin name. Study results will be made available only to participating stations. The stations' incentive to play along is to use this study as a sales tool showing the effectiveness of radio advertising and their station specifically. If they can build significant name recognition for a plumbing company that doesn't even exist in the market, that's pretty compelling.

This is the only compensation for the radio stations. Ven Vest co-owner and marketing guru John Young believes strongly in the impact of radio advertising and is convinced this study will prove that point. As of this writing, 16 stations in 16 cities in eight states have agreed to participate.

Results will guide Benjamin Franklin to the most promising cities in which to target new franchise openings. They expect that a year from now Benjamin Franklin Plumbing will be the best-known brand name in those markets, or at least be vying with Roto-Rooter and Mr. Rooter for that honor, even though their present 28 operating units are a small fraction of their rivals' totals.

Working with Young on this project is Roy Williams, a.k.a. "The Wizard of Ads," one of the most creative advertising mavens in the country. The ingenuity of this project stems not only from the branding strategy, but getting radio stations to do it for free.

Jim Olsztynski At ISH NA 2003

Jim Olsztynski is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America Tradeshow held Oct. 1-3 in Las Vegas, Nev. He will moderate a discussion of current plumbing/PVF issues by a blue-ribbon panel of industry VIPs. Panel No. 1 (Sponsored by Plumbing & Mechanical) takes place Thursday, Oct. 2 at 3:30 p.m. Panel No. 2 is on Friday, Oct. 3 at 9 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.