The makers of Old Bay seasoning, having saturated the mid-Atlantic crab eaters' market, are trying to break out of their shell.

Using outdoor billboards, grocery store displays and 2 million mailed catalogs, spice maker McCormick & Co. Inc. has embarked upon a drive to persuade consumers in the mid-Atlantic that the 56-year-old crab seasoning should go on chicken, corn, hamburgers, and potatoes. Oh, and maybe on their kids' heads, and in their golf bags too.

Following in the promotional path established by brands such as Coca-Cola and Tabasco, Old Bay has launched a catalog of brand-emblazoned goods -- ranging from crab mallets to baseball caps to golf balls.

While Coke and Tabasco make money from their catalogs and stores selling the hard goods, McCormick says it doesn't intend to profit from its gear sales -- right now, anyway.

McCormick, which bought the venerable seasoning recipe and brand from the Baltimore Spice Co. in 1990, wants to test out the market for the gear this summer.

For now, the company will be happy if it breaks even while recruiting a few thousand walking billboards to remind people that Old Bay can be good on all kinds of food, said Clark Neuhoff, Old Bay's brand manager at Sparks-based McCormick.

"The crab harvest is limited by nature and overfishing," and crab seasoning sales tend to live and die with the crab harvest, he explained.

Since Old Bay already has the lion's share of the crab seasoning market -- even its competitors estimate it sells more than seven ++ out of every 10 cans of crab seasoning -- Mr. Neuhoff figured the only way to expand Old Bay's sales would be to sell the seasoning for other foods, and to net some non-crab eaters as well.

Mr. Neuhoff doesn't think expanding the uses of Old Bay will be a hard sell. The company already gets letters from consumers suggesting other uses. "They say it's good on french fries, popcorn, baked potatoes, potato salad, pizzas . . . The strangest one I heard is one guy said 'I put it on my oatmeal.' "

His expansion strategy has already started to work. While sales of Old Bay in the mid-Atlantic have been stable in the last couple years, sales elsewhere are skyrocketing.

"The dramatic growth we've seen came from west of the Alleghenies, where they've never seen a blue crab," he said.

Old Bay's sales rose 38.5 percent to $6.3 million last year, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.

And, Mr. Neuhoff hopes, that's just the beginning.

He figures if he can just keep reminding consumers of other uses, sales could really take off -- in other regions of the country and in crab- less times of the year.

The catalog business, which has been operating for two weeks, has already tallied 500 orders, Mr. Neuhoff said.

If the merchandise sales take off, McCormick could turn the catalog into a profit center next year, he said.

While branded gear has long been a popular merchandising technique for beer and cigarette companies, it's a wave that's just beginning for crab seasoning companies.

In April, one of Old Bay's biggest competitors, Wye River Inc., opened a "crab outlet" near its Queenstown headquarters, selling 3,000 crab-oriented items.

About half of the items have Wye River's logo on them, said company Chairman Joseph Bernard.

Mr. Bernard said he doesn't mind that McCormick, which he says sells at least three times more crab spice than 10-year-old Wye River, has launched a potentially subsidized merchandising campaign against his store -- which he hopes to make money on.

Key to success in the merchandising business is the logo.

While Old Bay's blue and yellow can is recognizable locally, Wye River's red and black logo has a crab on it, which makes it more generally recognizable, he said.

"Wye River's logo is cool," he said.

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