The El Producto Story
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
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Yet a new--and stormy--era was beginning for El Producto. Consolidated issued yearly store displays (with the long-standing slogan, "For Real Enjoyment") in the late 1920s and instructed salesmen on how to set up cigar store cases with a "fine three-way lineup" of Puritanos Finos, Bouquets and Blunts. During the Depression years the company also implored employees to show a "fighting" spirit to counter lagging sales. But since the GHP Cigar Co. existed as a separate production entity under the Consolidated umbrella, with its own distinct sales force, that fighting was taken to nasty extremes over the next three decades.
Bitter in-house rivalries developed, as the Dutch Masters and El Producto salesmen used various tricks and strategies to snare retail shelf space. "It was all-out war between us, and we were out to kill Dutch Masters by whatever means necessary," says Lew Myers, who began selling El Productos in the 1940s and, like his father before him, stayed with the brand for 40 years.
"We owned places like Philadelphia, New York and Boston," says Myers. "To keep it that way, we'd take sharp pencils and put holes in Dutch Masters cigars. Made it look like [mites] had gotten into them. We'd also put our boxes on top of theirs, bury the Dutch Masters in store cases. We did all sorts of unsavory things, and they did the same to us."
During this battle for market share, the El Producto forces focused on urban areas. Some regions had specific preferences: "The 48-ring guage Escepcionale did nothing in New York," Myers says with a laugh. "Yet in Texas, where guys liked big cigars, that all-day sucker was king." Dutch Masters, meanwhile, became a more "national" smoke during the 1940s, easily found from California to Florida in the nation's smaller towns.
To solidify that national appeal in the 1950s and '60s, Dutch Masters lined up Ernie Kovacs, Danny Thomas and Sid Caesar to do TV spots, while the now machine-made El Productos were promoted by George Burns. But even as these two rivals slugged it out, budget-minded executives cut corners by utilizing "sheet" instead of natural binders, and generally gave both brands an unmistakeable uniformity.
"Both El Producto and Dutch Masters were interchangeable after a while," ruefully recalls a former El Producto salesman. "While each brand had a few distinct shapes, both cigars had the same taste, the same blend of tobaccos. The factories just packed them in different bands and boxes."
But "Much Dasters," as Kovacs liked to call them on television, drew a bigger advertising budget than El Producto. Joe Kissinger and other GHP salesmen resented this "inferior, stepsister treatment," and their feelings were further ruffled when Consolidated acquired Muriel cigars in 1956. Besides heavily promoting Muriels with Edie Adams' "Pick Me Up and Smoke Me Sometime" commercials, Consolidated asked the once-independent GHP salesmen to also sell Muriels, which had its own sales force as well.
In 1968, Gulf & Western purchased Consolidated, and to promote greater efficiency during an era of plummeting sales, it merged the El Producto and Dutch Masters' sales forces. The House Grabosky Built (Sam died in 1953) was now in the hands of "bankers," recalls Dave Goldfarb, another 40-year veteran at Consolidated. "They knew nothing about the cigar business and just picked off the profits."
Gulf & Western's continued to slash operating expenses in the 1970s. Joining the company back then, Jim Colucci recalls it was "cut, cut, cut," and the budgetary moves particularly affected El Producto, as G&W increasingly pulled the plug on all the brand's advertising.
"These were tough times in the industry, and deciding to emphasize Dutch Masters as the true national brand, G&W totally gave up on El Producto," says Colucci. "While it once had a $3 million ad budget, El Producto took a big hit every year. I tried to fight for more El Producto presence but it went unheard. All the money went to putting Dutch Masters on [ABC's] 'Monday Night Football', while El Producto got the leftovers for a few spots on bowling telecasts."
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