FLORIDA SHOWS SUPPORT FOR FIREFIGHTER BEVERAGE BRAND

NORWALK, Conn. -- If Courageous Cola can't come to the rescue, then consumers might try to quench their fiery thirsts with Incendiary Citrus.The carbonated soft drinks -- part of a line of beverages, salty snacks and chili developed by Firefighter Brand Products -- are nearing the end of a four-week trial at 110 Publix Super Markets stores in Florida.Started by a firefighter 11 years ago, the fledgling

NORWALK, Conn. -- If Courageous Cola can't come to the rescue, then consumers might try to quench their fiery thirsts with Incendiary Citrus.

The carbonated soft drinks -- part of a line of beverages, salty snacks and chili developed by Firefighter Brand Products -- are nearing the end of a four-week trial at 110 Publix Super Markets stores in Florida.

Started by a firefighter 11 years ago, the fledgling company hopes to become a national brand by tapping into the better-for-you movement and the natural tendency of consumers to support public servants and their causes. The company said its sodas, with names like Backdraft Root Beer, Flashover Orange and Firelight Diet Cola, are lower in sugar than the leading competitors and are free of high-fructose corn syrup. Additionally, one-fourth of net profits will go to firefighter-related causes. For example, $15,000 was recently donated to the Florida Hurricane Relief Fund on behalf of Lakeland-based Publix.

"That is one of the more compelling aspects of this brand," Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens told SN. Merchandised on pallets and endcaps in Publix stores with cardboard stand-up cutouts of a firefighter, the chips and drinks seem to enjoy broad appeal with customers from young families to seniors, Stevens noted.

Another operator offering the brand, Stew Leonard's, based here, liked that the company is local to the retailer's market, said Andrew Colton, Stew Leonard's vice president of purchasing. The three-store chain is currently the second retailer to carry the Firefighter Brand line, though only the food items. Stew's isn't carrying the soda because of limited shelf space in a competitive category, he said.

If sales meet their targets, then Publix will consider carrying Firefighter Brand products throughout all divisions in the Southeastern United States during 2005. Firefighter Brand also hopes to crack such retailers as Stop & Shop, Shaw's Supermarkets, Kroger and ShopRite next year, company officials said.

Products like these may have a better shot in specialty retailers like Stew's, whose shoppers appreciate unusual products, said David Bishop, director at Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill. Overall, the risk of failure is high, however. Unlike products that are used as part of a meal, chips and beverages are judged on their own. The line will need a lot of promotional support to create interest and drive trial and repeat purchase.

"This is the type of product [where] it could be boom or bust," Bishop said.

Other upstart profits-for-charity food companies have done well. Newman's Own is one of the best known, but Newman's benefited from Paul Newman's celebrity, and it launched in a comparatively safe category, salad dressing, whose products may not be held to the same level of scrutiny as chips and soda, Bishop pointed out.

Firefighter Brand has the faith of experienced marketers behind its products: It's led by John Bello, the founder of SoBe Beverages, and Bruce Burke, a longtime marketer for the National Football League.

Burke, who heads the beverage side, said his confidence in the brand comes not only from the public relations value of firefighters, but the products' taste and appeal that he said cut across age and gender in taste tests. As better-for-you products, they'll be premium-priced: A 2-liter jug of soda cost 99 cents during the promotional period, but he hopes to sell it for the everyday price of $1.25. The sodas and an aptly named Hydrant Water also come in 12-packs and 20-ounce bottles.

The food line includes snack items like Kettle Potato Chips and Baked Nacho Chips, and there are three varieties of chili: Chili With Beans, Chili No Beans and Chicken Chili.

The company plans to build awareness mainly through grass-roots marketing by firefighters, who gave out samples along with smoke alarms at store launches. It hopes to expand its line to include sports drinks, juice and other food products.

While each Firefighter Brand stockkeeping unit pictures a different firefighter, Burke said he believes the firefighting institution is powerful enough that the brand needs no celebrity spokesman. That's also why the company doesn't mention Sept. 11 in its promotional materials, lest it appear to be exploiting tragedy.

"It's not about Sept. 11 in any way, shape or form," Burke said. "Firefighters are a trusted and respected American institution. They're also a brand, and our job is to harness it."