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Old Bay aims to extend its reach

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If you composed a list of local brands that could be considered venerable, Old Bay would probably sit at the top.

From popcorn to pizza — and the seasoning's most beloved partner, steamed crabs — Marylanders have found many uses for the McCormick & Co. spices-and-herbs blend over the past 75 years.

But now, Old Bay is trying some new moves to bolster its visibility in and beyond Baltimore. This month, Old Bay entered the increasingly popular craft-beer market by collaborating with Frederick's Flying Dog Brewery on a seasonal beer. The first-ever Old Bay TV advertisements will debut this weekend in Baltimore; they will soon appear in other markets in the region. And the brand, in collaboration with the frozen potato brand Mr. Dee's, has released its first freezer-case products.

Jessica Schatz, brand manager for Old Bay, said these efforts — part of the company's summer-long 75th anniversary celebration — are attempts to expand Old Bay's fan base.

"It's really important to get a broader love" for Old Bay, Schatz said. Although Old Bay has distribution nationwide, she said, "The sales are best in Maryland, and we'd really love to expand that area of people who love Old Bay."

Schatz declined to provide sales numbers but said the company has "been seeing growth" in the Mid-Atlantic market and nationwide.

Old Bay regularly receives offers to collaborate with other products, but Schatz said working with Flying Dog on Dead Rise, which is available on draft in Baltimore bars and in six-packs at local liquor stores, was an "interesting" way to showcase Old Bay's flavor.

"Something we love to say is, 'Taste it once, love it forever,' so this is another way to get Old Bay in front of people and on their tastebuds," Schatz said.

Ben Savage, chief marketing officer at Flying Dog, said Dead Rise has exceeded the company's sales expectations, though he declined to share details. Savage said Flying Dog has received requests from Maryland natives now living across the country, including California, Iowa and Texas.

"It certainly has been a lot more far-reaching than we thought," Savage said.

Currently, Dead Rise can be purchased only in Maryland and Washington, but Savage said the plan is to stretch the beer's availability from New York City to North Carolina by the middle of the summer.

The beer shelf is not the only new area in line to receive a dash of Old Bay. The company is scheduled to announce Tuesday its entry into TV advertising, which Schatz calls a "big step" for the company. Two Baltimore-centric advertisements titled "If This Can Could Talk" and "What's Inside" will air throughout the summer. The latter will feature black-and-white portraits of Baltimoreans that will also be used in Old Bay billboards around the city.

The advertisements will be repurposed for other strong Old Bay markets, such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Va., according to Schatz. She said the aim is to make potentially new customers outside the Mid-Atlantic market aware of the product while still maintaining Old Bay's regional history.

"We continue to see that when we put the support behind the brand, sales respond to it and people respond to it," Schatz said.

Old Bay can now also be found in the frozen-foods section of the grocery store for the first time. Old Bay Seasoned Fries and Old Bay Potato Bites have been released to more than 1,000 Wal-Mart Supercenters, Redner's and other national outlets, Schatz said, including locally.

Old Bay does not have any other product collaborations ready for release, she said, but the company evaluates opportunities on a continuing basis.

It all leads to the question: Could Old Bay, a brand synonymous with the Chesapeake Bay and the area's seafood, become as popular away from Maryland as it is here?

Sylvia Long-Tolbert, who teaches brand management at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, said she could see Old Bay having legs outside its Baltimore stronghold, especially if McCormick sticks close to the brand's core strength in seafood.

"Any seafood, fishing community would be automatically responsive," said Long-Tolbert, an assistant professor. "Along the seaboard, people are going to have a pretty rich knowledge of spices that complement seafood."

So, Old Bay with New England clam chowder or Maine lobster? Sure, she said, that would work, as well as West Coast seafood applications. Old Bay barbecued ribs? That could be an "uphill battle," she said.

David Warschawski, CEO of Warschawski, a full-service marketing and communications agency in Baltimore, emphasized that Old Bay's strong local identity makes a solid springboard for any effort to expand geographically or extend the line of Old Bay products.

In this area, he said, Old Bay is "the Kleenex or the Xerox of the crab spices," in that the name is generically used when referring to any seafood seasoning. That's a great advantage locally, he said, although it's not a national brand, and in many parts of the country "it is not known at all."

Warschawski thought that sticking to seafood alone would be "exceedingly limiting," given Old Bay's potential. He imagined Old Bay seasoning blends with an Asian inflection, Old Bay sausages, hot dogs and even margarita mix.

He noted that Jack Daniel's whiskey brand has done something like this with sauces served at T.G.I. Friday's restaurants and in a line of Jack Daniel's barbecue sauces. Hershey's and Betty Crocker have teamed up on cupcake and brownie mixes, and Starbucks puts its imprimatur on syrups, sauces, coffees and coffee brewing equipment.

"These are the kind of extensions when you have a powerful brand," Warschawski said.

Chris Piergalline, a Pigtown resident who grew up in Laurel, said he has taken Old Bay on trips to Las Vegas because not all seafood buffets there offer it. He could see the brand's popularity rising nationally — though not quite to the heights of Maryland's obsession — through licensed versions of products he grew up on, such as Old Bay popcorn.

He just hopes he can leave his yellow can home in the future.

"I have friends spread throughout the country, and really throughout the world, and I would love for them to be able to eat the same types of seafood, done the way I do it," Piergalline said. "There's plenty of Old Bay knockoffs — you know, seafood seasonings — but it's just not the same."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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