Giving Thanks!1 Nov, 2011 By: Thomas Haire Response
Masterbuilt's John McLemore says family commitment, a big brand name and long-form DRTV are the keys to the success of the Butterball Indoor Electric Turkey Fryer.
“The marriage of Masterbuilt and DRTV was perfect,” says John McLemore, president and CEO of Columbus, Ga.-based Masterbuilt Manufacturing Inc., marketers of the successful line of Butterball Turkey Fryers. “In an economy where every business is looking for new, cost effective ways to advertise, the infomercial gave us the perfect way to do that.”
The long-form DRTV effort for the turkey fryer is in the heart of its third season this fall after debuting in DRTV in 2009. However, Masterbuilt’s history tracks back to 1973 – and the company’s initial indoor turkey fryer, still the model for today’s units — debuted successfully in home shopping and at retail in 2003.
“We did this backwards from what some do — they do an infomercial to create retail excitement and then go to retail,” McLemore says. “In our case, we had huge retail success from 2003-08, including redesigning from a round to a rectangular unit.”
McLemore, who runs the family-owned business with brother Don (who serves as vice president and chief operating officer; John serves as the face of and spokesman for the company), has followed in his father’s footsteps as a product creator who seeks to solve everyday problems around his own home. It just so happens that many of those solutions have worked as retail products.
“My dad’s first product was a fern stand,” he says. “Our mother liked to take plants from inside and water outside, so dad built a three-legged water stand with a water bowl below.”
Today, almost all of Masterbuilt’s product line — from fryers to grills to smokers — revolves around food preparation, a business that is perfect for the demonstrability needed for a successful DRTV product. McLemore even has a cookbook out — “Dadgum, That’s Good!” — that centers on preparing food with Masterbuilt’s products.
But the story of the turkey fryer combines the hard work of getting it into the hands of executives at well-known turkey brand Butterball, the help of its agency partners and a product that is extremely popular in the fourth quarter of any year — a true recipe for success.
All in the Family
The McLemores’ father, Dawson, founded Masterbuilt 38 years ago (John was 8 and Don 11 years old). “For the first three years, it was really a hobby for dad,” McLemore says. “But then he retired from Goodyear and ran it with Don, myself and our two other brothers until 1984.”
When Dawson retired in 1984, the other McLemore brothers moved on to other businesses, leaving 18-year-old John and 21-year-old Don to run the company with their father as a silent partner.
After that initial fern stand for his wife, Dawson next built a series of “baker’s racks” for plants and nurseries that were “decorative and could be used in the house.” But it was when he built his first fish fryer that Dawson McLemore first realized he had something bigger on his hands.
“He built it, again, with our personal needs in mind,” McLemore says. “My dad loved to fry fish. But people saw it when they came over and asked him if he’d build similar ones for them. In fact, the very first fish fryer he built, he traded to another guy for a Snapper lawnmower. It was then that he had the idea — maybe instead of bartering, people would be willing to pay for his products.”
The company had success with the fish fryer and began to create more cooking products, including different fryers and smokers. But what Dawson was teaching his sons, above and beyond running a business, was a way of life. “We learned a lot from my dad,” McLemore says. “His work ethic was something we learned a lot from — always working hard and doing the right thing.”
But the difference between generations was that John and Don saw that Masterbuilt could be bigger. “We were a pretty small company, selling products in three to five states, when dad retired in 1984,” McLemore says. “Our goals were to expand nationally, and while we did a lot of things the same as dad, expansion was a different story. We went from our backyard to a few states to national by the late 1990s.”
Perhaps the biggest moment in that expansion happened on Thanksgiving 1983 — just prior to Don and John becoming part owners. “Don and I were living out on our own, and the fish cooker had been on the market five or six years,” McLemore recalls. “Right before Thanksgiving, we experimented by putting a boiling pot on top of the fish cooker, making it a gas turkey fryer. It worked so well that we told our mother that we wanted to be responsible for making the Thanksgiving turkey.”
The brothers arrived at their parents’ home for a scheduled 6 p.m. dinner on Thanksgiving afternoon at 4 p.m. — with just their fryer, some oil and a raw turkey. “You can imagine, the ladies preparing the rest of the meal went into panic mode!” McLemore says with a laugh. “But, we just stepped outside, fired up the turkey fryer and dropped the turkey in at 4:45 p.m.” At 5:30 p.m., they removed the fully cooked turkey and at 5:45 p.m., it was on the table.
But that’s not the end of the story. McLemore adds, “Well, we came to find out that one of the women had secretly baked a turkey as a backup. They just knew we were going to spoil the dinner, and their fears were coming true at 4 o’clock — or so they thought. However, everybody ate deep fried turkey that night, and the only reason they ate the baked turkey was that we ran out of the fried one. Our family has had deep-fried turkey every holiday since!”
And, within months, Masterbuilt’s first outdoor turkey fryer was on the market.
The company did well with this (and other products for years). When Dawson fully retired in 1998 and sold his shares in the company to John and Don (the brothers remain 50-50 partners today), the turkey fryer was doing extremely well, thanks to the “turkey frying craze that hit in the late 1990s and 2000s,” according to John McLemore.
“But we were continuing to look for better ways to do things for our customers,” he says. “People were looking for a safer alternative to frying outside. And so were we. By 2001, we started developing electronic boiling pots — we wanted to find something big and powerful enough to cook a turkey inside.”
In 2003, the company introduced the Turk-n-Surf, the world’s first indoor electric turkey fryer. “It was not only a safer, but a better way to fry a turkey,” McLemore says. “It was countertop safe and not only cooked a turkey, but was also great for fish fries, seafood boiling, peanuts — you name it.”
However, such a revolutionary product took a lot of consumer education. That’s one reason that the McLemores decided to take it to QVC. “It launched on the channel on Dec. 8, 2003, and was the No. 1 seller in its space as soon as it launched,” McLemore says. After another pair of good holiday seasons on home shopping in 2004 and 2005, the company elevated its public relations campaign, getting on air on such popular shows as Fox & Friends to promote the product.
As these plans bore fruit, retailers were requesting the product and having great success with it — and not just seasonally. “Outside of the holidays, we were doing other product promotions, not just as a turkey fryer,” McLemore says. “Retailers were really doing well with it and giving it great placement.”
By 2006, the product’s success had the McLemore brothers looking for a partnership with Butterball. “I wanted other methods to tell our story, and we thought the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line was a good avenue,” McLemore says of the seasonal phone line (800-BUTTERBALL) that answers questions about cooking turkey during November and December. “We thought it would be great to be linked with the ‘turkey experts.’”
McLemore’s initial idea, shared on first contact with Butterball in 2006, was to find a method to co-promote the turkey line and the turkey fryer through a partnership. Not once did a licensing relationship enter his mind. After a series of starts and stops that lasted into early 2008, the McLemores finally got their breakthrough.
“Don and I went to San Diego in 2008 to deep fry at the National Turkey Federation (NTF) event,” McLemore recalls. “While there, we met Walter Pelletier, who goes by the nickname ‘Gator’ and was an executive with Butterball at the time. We got to know him — he was being nominated to become the next president of the NTF — and he came to our demonstration.”
McLemore continues, “He fell in love with the product immediately, so we gave him one and he deep fried everything he could get his hands on. Now, he knew we wanted the relationship to co-promote with Butterball. But he pushed to take that idea to the next level.”
Within months, the McLemores did a cooking demo for Butterball’s talk-line phone representatives and then had Butterball representatives in meetings “telling people that if you want to fry a turkey, this is the product for you,” McLemore says.
By 2009, Masterbuilt’s indoor electric turkey fryer became the first product ever that Butterball licensed its brand to. “One thing they really liked was that this was a safe way to fry turkeys,” McLemore says. “The most important thing for them was to put their brand on a safe, quality product.”
However, McLemore contends that Butterball also wanted to be involved with the product because of an upcoming campaign. “They knew we were planning to do an infomercial in fall 2009, and they thought that infomercial would be the best avenue to educate consumers and push retail sales,” McLemore says.
A Feast of Success
One of the reasons Butterball and Masterbuilt were excited about the idea of a long-form DRTV show was to show the product’s safety. “In 2005-06, the media had some fun with stories about the danger of frying turkeys,” McLemore says. “But by 2009, our brand was growing in popularity and trust. The Butterball family had researched our brand and track record. It made sense for us to come together, and when that happened, the infomercial just fit perfectly.”
With the wisdom of Heath Sorrells, who became Masterbuilt’s DR marketing manager in 2007, and a partnership with Chicago-based DR agency RW Advertising, the company’s first long-form show hit the air in fall 2009. “RW has grasped all aspects of the campaign to help us do a better job than what we did in the mid-1990s (the company’s original, and less successful foray into DRTV with a smoker product),” McLemore says.
But with a product that was already a hit at retail — Masterbuilt’s retail partners include Wal-Mart, K-mart, Sears, Costco, Lowe’s, major sporting goods outlets and online retailers like Amazon and QVC — the trick was to drive education and immediate sales while still pushing through big numbers at retail.
“In 2009, we had good success but, most importantly, we learned a lot we could carry forward,” McLemore says. “We learned how to balance inventory at retail, which models sold better, using a teleprompter effectively. But most of all, it reinforced something I’ve believed all along — by partnering with RW, we had the right people on our team.”
Sorrells, who recently left Masterbuilt to open up RW West, the agency’s new Los Angeles office (but still works extensively with the Masterbuilt team), says of the product’s DR success, “It can only be categorized as a home run. We were able to take a product that was on its last cycle and, with Masterbuilt’s redesign and the popular Butterball brand, make it one of the hottest products during the holiday season.”
Consumers were educated by the show, and the product’s triple-figure price point became a moot point when people saw all the product could do. “The indoor electric turkey fryer was a product that needed to be demonstrated,” Sorrells says. “We had to show people that not only are deep-fried turkeys delicious, but it’s also safe and you can do it from your kitchen counter. The infomercial gave us that platform to get that message across. The other reason for marketing via direct response is the benefit of the direct sales. Masterbuilt did not have a huge war chest to spend on advertising. In fact, prior to the Butterball campaign, the company spent very little in marketing. The sales generated from the infomercial help Masterbuilt spend far more than they ever could through traditional media.”
A year later, the company introduced the fryer’s big brother — the Butterball Indoor Electric Turkey Fryer XL. Both products have had success, and more is expected as the company enters the heart of its selling season this month.
“We’re in full swing now,” says McLemore of a campaign that began in October with eight weeks to drive awareness for Thanksgiving. “We compress what many companies do in a much longer time period. We have to drive retail in a very tight window. And even if we’re on air in October, people don’t think about it until it gets even closer to the holidays. Most buy in a two-week period prior to Thanksgiving.”
Not only have the company’s DRTV efforts paid off in direct sales, but they’ve even heightened that long-term retail trust and success. “I was in Wal-Mart yesterday,” McLemore said in mid-October. “And, the Butterball Turkey Fryer was there, right in the center aisle.”
President and CEO, Masterbuilt Manufacturing Inc., Columbus, Ga.
Family: Wife, Tonya, and three children: Brooke (21), John II (19) and Bailey (13)
Defining Moments: “On the personal side, being a Christian and my relationship with Jesus Christ have helped define me both personally and professionally. Just as important, I’m married to a great woman, who really helped me be able to do what I do. These defining moments are very personal but have helped me be more successful as a businessperson.”
Greatest Career Accomplishment: “Running a family business is very challenging. A lot of them don’t make it as a business and, even worse, don’t continue making it as family. That’s why my greatest accomplishment is the fact that we’ve been able to grow a family business while allowing the family stay No. 1 over business.”
Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Masterbuilt Manufacturing Inc., Columbus, Ga.
Family: Wife, Lynne, and three sons: Blake (21), Brett (17) and Trevor (13)