Monday, June 01, 2009
CONSUMER HEALTH RESEARCH
If you are Diane Mahoney, you find new markets in Turkey and China, establish a presence in Arizona and tap into the Beverly Hills celebrity culture to seek out a high-profile endorsement.
Mahoney, the 47-year-old president of Roseburg-based Consumer Health Research, sells nontoxic cleaning products under the Environné label online and through grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Fred Meyer and Whole Foods. Her best-selling item is a fruit and vegetable wash that removes dirt, oils and pesticides. She bought the formula and the company in 1996 with her husband, Michael, a child psychologist.
A Blackberry-toting mother of two with a degree in special education, Mahoney has deep opinions about the dangers of pesticides, the connection between toxins and learning disabilities, the murky origins of the food we eat and the awesome power of the $37 billion pesticides industry. She sees her produce wash as a simple solution to serious problems. “For a few dollars per month you can clean all your fruits and vegetables safely and get all sorts of health benefits for your family,” she says.
But while sales have grown steadily (up 7% over the past year), they haven’t taken off, as Mahoney believes they should. A drop in consumer spending last fall kept her just shy of grossing a million dollars for the first time in 2008. Grocery stores have passed on her products because they don’t want to insinuate that their food is not safe.
For Mahoney’s business to soar would require a major behavioral shift, from rinsing fruits and vegetables with water to washing them with nontoxic soap and then rinsing. “We learn in fifth grade that oil and water don’t mix, but people don’t make the connection.”
How to change that, when your energy level is high but resources are limited? Mahoney’s strategy focuses on new markets and consumer education. Consider her recent foray into Turkey, a nation that buys produce from farmers in Russia not known for applying chemicals sparingly. A physician who writes a wellness newsletter recommended Environné and several entrepreneurs in Turkey read the post and smelled opportunity. They contacted Mahoney and started negotiating a deal. Mahoney worked with Alexa Hamilton, an international trade officer with the state, to verify the buyers were legitimate, and once she was satisfied, she shipped the first order. Her Turkish partners have launched a television marketing program that she has seen online, although she doesn’t understand a word of it.
She’s also exploring a partnership with Howenia Foods, which processes dried fruits and vegetables in China. But Mahoney’s greatest challenge is the domestic market. Recent successes aside (including a contract with Fry’s, a 120-store chain in Arizona), she needs to get the word out more effectively, but notes, “I’m not Procter & Gamble.”
Time to get whacky. At a natural products expo in California in March, she learned of a marketing company that organizes “gifting suites” backstage at Hollywood events. Entrepreneurs pitch their products to celebrities, hoping for a glamorous endorsement. It seemed dubious to Mahoney, but when the price dropped from $10,000 to $5,000, she consented. That’s how she got backstage last month at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 20th anniversary ceremony at the Nokia Theatre with Kathy Griffin, Ellen DeGeneres, Gus Van Sant and others in attendance. She didn’t nail the big Ellen endorsement, but she did get votes of confidence from the Desperate Housewives crew and other celebs, plus an invitation to return in August for the Emmys.
Hobnobbing in Hollywood is just the latest adventure for this multi-tasking mom, who mentors Douglas County entrepreneurs in her not-so-spare time. She dreams of manufacturing in Roseburg instead of contracting out, so she can create jobs in her hometown. But first things first: growth. “Once people start using these products, they don’t stop,” she says.
The never-ending challenge is convincing more people to start using them.