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Blue Seal Feeds beefs up for changing times

Makeover diversifies inventory, clientele

DERRY, N.H. -- Jackson Strong remembers when the customers at Blue Seal Feeds and Needs were mostly farmers.

''There aren't many farmers around now, but everybody used to have a farm, whether it was dairy or poultry," said Strong, 63, who was raised on his grandmother's poultry farm in New Boston and has worked at the Derry store for the past 11 years. ''Horse feed is still our top seller, but we sell a lot of pet products."

Blue Seal Feeds Inc., based in Londonderry, employs about 500 people at nine manufacturing plants throughout New England. It has been in the business of selling animal feed for about 140 years, but in recent years has undergone a gradual makeover to appeal to a new generation of customers.

Those changes can be seen at the Blue Seal Feeds and Needs in Derry, where pumpkins and potted mums are on display, along with bird feed on the shelves. The company is now catering as much to gardeners as horse owners.

Blue Seal was a family-owned business until it became a subsidiary of Varied Investments Inc. of Muscatine, Iowa, in 1989.

In the mid-1990s, Blue Seal still dominated the horse-feed market, with a 60 to 75 percent market share in New England, but managers were concerned the brand was unknown to the new population of residents from out of state, said Jim Willett, vice president of the consumer brands division for Blue Seal.

''We realized we had an older generation of people who knew about Blue Seal," said Willett. ''We wanted to make sure to keep them and bring in some younger people."

The first problem to address: Blue Seal's changing customer base.

Fifty years ago, the average Blue Seal customer was a male farmer who stayed put most of his life. His product of choice: feed for farm animals he raised for milk, meat, and eggs, Willett said.

Now the typical customer is a woman who owns horses, or people with hobby farms and gardens. Changing demographics meant customers were not necessarily native New Englanders.

''Packing designed to appeal to a female buyer was new for our company," said Willett. ''We're the 800-pound gorilla in the feed business, but our whole image needed some freshening up."

The person most responsible for revamping the Blue Seal image and exploring new lines of pet food is Terry Vital, president of Vital & Ryze Advertising of Manchester.

''Blue Seal went from agricultural products for farms and gentlemen hobby farmers and shifted to pet products," said Vital. ''Blue Seal wants to protect their interests in [the] agricultural market; it's one of their values. But for them to experience fiscal fitness, it's a matter of them looking to new markets."

The relationship between Vital's firm and Blue Seal is evidence that gender plays a part in the corporate world. Blue Seal turned to Vital because it was seeking to avoid mega agencies, and wanted an agency that was approachable, based nearby, and run by a woman.

Ironically, when Vital started her firm 15 years ago, she said, she was hampered by the image of a one-woman firm and added the name ''Ryze"' to her company name to give clients the impression of a bigger company. (The word doesn't stand for anything, but Vital said she chose it because it sounded upbeat and would be memorable because of the unusual spelling.)

Now, Vital says her firm has grown into one of the top five agencies in New Hampshire in terms of revenue, with clients ranging from medical manufacturers to national consumer products.

Market research and consumer testing showed Blue Seal's best approach was to promote its heritage, while also positioning its products to appeal to a consumer interested in healthy lifestyle values, Vital said.

''Their studies, which we validated, showed those people who have healthy lifestyles personally, prefer to buy healthy lifestyle products for their animals," Vital said.

The descriptions of its new bird feed and horse treats sound wholesome and indulgent enough to be sold for human consumption at an organic food store.

For example, Blue Seal's woodpecker mix is described as having a hearty, coarse-textured blend containing a generous amount of peanuts and tree nuts, de-hulled cornflower seeds and chips, coarse cracked corn, berries, and pumpkin seeds.

Blue Seal packaging now contains color photographs, product photos, and slogans that highlight the ingredients and vitamins. Willett declined to provide specific numbers, but said sales have been growing steadily, reversing a downward trend. The success triggered more support for introducing new products and launching a new brand.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon at the Derry store, the customers reflected the shift in Blue Seal's approach. A man rushed in from the downpour and, in a tone that suggested an emergency, asked Strong where he could find a specialty bird feed.

Meanwhile, a blue pickup pulled into the warehouse drive-through, and workers helped load 50-pound sacks of trotter horse feed and bales of hay onto the truck.

''I sometimes think there are as many people raising birds as farm animals," Strong said. ''A guy just came in today who always drives up from Massachusetts and bought a couple of 50-pound bags of parakeet feed."

Under a different brand name, Blue Seal expanded into the lucrative pet food business with a byNature line of holistic animal, dog, and cat food, including power bars and low-carb food for animals and pets.

''If we hadn't have changed, we'd be dead in the water," Willett said. ''The younger generation didn't know we were a 140-year-old company. You have to change with your customer." 

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