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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Ask Dennis Garberg and Elaine Stansfield to explain how their business has evolved, and pretty soon they trot out a visual aid."Dennis does this really well on the back of a cocktail napkin," needles Stansfield, president and chief operating officer of Sunflower Group here. Garberg, the firm's chief executive officer, nods and sketches a "hub and spoke" diagram on a pad in his

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Ask Dennis Garberg and Elaine Stansfield to explain how their business has evolved, and pretty soon they trot out a visual aid.

"Dennis does this really well on the back of a cocktail napkin," needles Stansfield, president and chief operating officer of Sunflower Group here. Garberg, the firm's chief executive officer, nods and sketches a "hub and spoke" diagram on a pad in his office. It resembles a bull's-eye.

The easy repartee between the two dates back to 1978, when they created Sunflower as an ad agency specializing in run-of-press newspaper insertions. Today they control a diversified promotions business specializing in in-home, in-store and targeted delivery of samples, a business Garber estimates has already distributed well in excess of 100 million samples for its clients.

"Our business is to work with consumer packaged goods companies and provide them with the best promotional services we can offer," says Garberg. "A lot of that involves listening between the lines, trying to anticipate trends and making changes in our offering as the times change."

Sunflower today is probably best known among brand marketers for three of its service offerings: its newspaper ROP business; home delivery of pouched samples using newspaper delivery, and in-store sampling and demonstrations.

These "spokes," or service businesses, are linked to Sunflower Group's "hub," which coordinates sales and sales support, accounting, administration and client service. The company's headquarters outside Kansas City also houses Market Smart, a recently acquired geodemographic targeting and mapping business. Just up the road is a company-owned facility that manufactures and ships out newspaper sample pouches by the trailerload.

To underscore how big and intricate the sampling business has become, Stansfield describes a newspaper sampling project Sunflower was preparing last month for an unnamed client that would ultimately put 17 million samples into targeted homes. Distribution was to be directed to specified ZIP codes, and the sample pouches customized to meet requirements of each newspaper.

The interplay of massive scale with fine targeting that Sunflower confronts daily is becoming a recurrent theme for the promotions business, the two executives say.

"Everything we do in home sampling is targeted," Garberg says. "We might be going after upper-income households who consume three or more cups of coffee per day. Then the newspapers can deliver on a ZIP code-selected basis. We index each ZIP code on 'goodness of fit,' so to speak."

This is where Sunflower's investment in MarketSmart becomes so strategic. The subsidiary, run by President Mark Siebert, deals in geodemographic targeting and mapping, using methods that in some ways are similar to its larger competitor, Spectra/Market Metrics.

The group mines enormous consumer data bases such as those from Microvision and Equifax, the world's largest credit data base, matching lifestyle and demographic data with store trading areas, ZIP codes and even finer geographic divisions.

Most Sunflower promotional programs now, from newspaper advertising, to in-store demonstrations use analyses from MarketSmart to identify markets, stores and neighborhoods with that "goodness of fit," or high potential to yield optimal results.

The geodemographic overlay is a key decision-making tool for brand marketers seeking more efficient ways to allocate limited promotion dollars, says Stansfield.

"Not everybody is a P&G or a Kraft with huge budgets. Smaller companies, and smaller brands within the corporate giants, don't have the money to go into all 2,000 Wal-Mart stores for a sampling and demo program. It is just not in the budget," she says.

"We tell our clients, 'Tell us what your budget is and we can recommend for you the top 700 stores you should be in. You can just use ACV, but you can also factor in brand development index, category development index, lifestyle demographics and other measures to identify high-opportunity stores.' "

Targeting has similar application for in-home sampling, where large numbers of samples can add up to big dollars invested. Focusing on ZIP codes with the right consumer fit puts those dollars closer to the target customer.

"But we are not stopping there," says Stansfield. "We have an ongoing dialogue with newspapers trying to convince them to be even more finite in whom they are delivering to. Sometimes all you have to say are two words to get their attention: 'direct mail.' That really is a competitive concern."

In theory, newspapers have the ability to target sample deliveries down to the carrier route level and below. MarketSmart is capable of analyzing areas this small, but as Garberg points out, carrier route capability is certainly not the standard or the norm. "Very few newspapers can get down below the ZIP level," he says. "Some can. And they generally can deliver to carrier routes, but they turn out to be some god-awful polygons that only the carriers know where they stop and start."

In other words, carrier routes are not always geodemographically meaningful. With its strong relationships with newspapers, rooted in its 18-year old ROP business, Sunflower is working on educating them.

Since Sunflower added Marketplace Solutions, its in-store sampling and demonstration business, several years ago, the activity has also provided the company with strong connections with the retail trade, particularly the drug, mass and grocery sectors. "We have always had a sterling reputation with the packaged goods companies. Now we are working more with our customers' customers," Stansfield says.

Effective communication with both manufacturer and retailer is critical, she says. Sunflower maintains two sales forces. One has always called on manufacturers. Since entering the in-store business it also formed a retail sales force, which sells and call on the clients' customers, the retail trade.

"You can get the best demonstrators in the world, design the greatest coupons, or the greatest promotional idea for in-store, but if that person shows up and the retailer doesn't know about it, or didn't merchandise against it, it is a total waste of money," she says.

Stansfield says that as Sunflower handles more promotions customized for specific retail accounts, she is discerning evidence that some brand marketers are shifting toward more local control of national promotion programs.

"It seems like packaged goods companies are setting their structure up to go that way," she says. "I could name at least five companies in past year that have realigned their marketing sales and promotion groups to be able to be much more responsive to those customer teams and even the regional areas."

But she sees little evidence that brand managers have ceded their purse strings to the account team leaders. "It hasn't caught up yet," she says, adding, "I think it will be the way to go."

Both Garberg and Stansfield agree that the ability to target national promotions on a finer and finer basis is going to be a critical issue for brand marketers going forward.

Says Garberg, "Targeting is becoming especially important for sample delivery due to costs of manufacturing and distribution." Adds Stansfield, "I think it will be important to stay competitive in the industry. Manufacturers are getting more and more targeted. Regardless of what vehicle you are using, I think trying to be more targeted not only to the consumer but to the trade is definitely the direction to go. We are definitely going to stay committed to going down that path."

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