Priming the primary-year pump

From beers to pies, marketers envision quick bucks

By Lois R. Shea, Globe Staff, June 27, 1999

DERRY -- Businesses in New Hampshire have long ridden the coattails of the presidential primary. Now some are trying to grab it by the lapels.

Every four years comes a parade of politicians, pollsters, spin doctors, drivers, schedulers, hairdressers. Behind that comes a great herd of national and international press with attendant expense accounts.

All those people need to eat, sleep and travel, which means they throw money around like so many beads at Mardi Gras.

Which makes the primary a marketer's dream.

This primary season, look for beer, pie and one Manchester taxicab to borrow marketing cachet from New Hampshire's Great Political Event.

"I think it's excellent," said former governor Hugh Gregg, who will defend New Hampshire's primary to the last. "I love it. It's great for the state, it [provides] more publicity for us, promotes the whole business. I think more people should do it."

Dennis "I wasn't lucky enough to be born in New Hampshire but I was smart enough to move here" Hamel drives a cab in Manchester. A 46-year-old former defense industry marketer who "finally got tired of being laid off," Hamel is now the proud owner/operator of the Primary Cab. Motto: "First in the nation!"

The Primary Cab is a Reagan-era Olds Cutlass wagon, gray, with 156,000 miles on the odometer.

"I needed a company name, and Dennis Hamel Cab wasn't doing it," Hamel said the other day over a soda at Pappy's as his cab rested outside. "I figured if I could get a couple of candidates to come for a photo op, why not?"

The contenders he'd most like to get in his cab: Bill Bradley ("He'd be a guy who I think would be an interesting conversation") and Alan Keyes ("God, would I like to have a conversation with that man. The guy is brilliant!").

So far, the closest he's come is giving a lift to a Pat Buchanan campaign worker.

The marketing cachet of the long-held political tradition "shows that it's been here long enough that it's identification is becoming of value to people," said Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

Gregg thinks for a minute, postulating on the idea of Primary Bagels and Primary Potato Chips. Or how about milkshakes?

"How about a Frosty Forbes? He's pretty frosty anyway. A Frosty Forbes milkshake -- that's a great idea!"

The Library and Archives of New Hampshire's Political Tradition has sold $20,000 worth of the first edition of presidential primary trading cards at five bucks apiece. The second edition -- picturing the 2000 candidates -- will be out, Gregg figures, in time to stuff Christmas stockings.

A dozen or so books have been written on the primary (including three by a former governor and one allegedly by a dog). There has been the odd T-shirt here and there, and perhaps the occasional sandwich and ice cream flavor named in honor of the great political event.

But never a beer.

Until now. During the 2000 primary season, political junkies will be able to belly up and quench their thirst with Primary Pale Ale.

The latest from Nutfield Brewing Co. in Derry -- whose beer, incidentally, made a quick cameo in the film "Primary Colors" -- made its debut last week at the New Hampshire exhibit of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and was served at a gala dinner in the nation's capital celebrating the primary.

The Nutfield brewers aimed carefully for the middle of the tastebud road. They needed a beer to satisfy both the Rolling Rock and Samuel Adams crowds. Something compassionate yet conservative. Something practical yet idealistic.

"We didn't go too far to the right or too far to the left," said the brewery's president, Jim Killeen. "It's the beer that could win the election."

They settled on a wheat beer -- yellow yet robust.

"If you picked it up, you couldn't tell if it was a Democratic beer or a Republican beer," said Killeen, smiling broadly. "I looked at this beer like a candidate. It has to apply to a wide body."

Perhaps the candidates will debate: Less filling vs. Tastes great. Beats talking about foreign policy.

Killeen plans to invite all candidates to the brewery for a variation on ribbon-cutting -- the official tapping of the keg -- which he hopes will serve as a sort of sudsy kickoff to primary season.

After that, Primary Pale Ale will be placed on draft at strategically elected political watering holes.

Never to be upstaged, Gordon the pie man has been glad-handing in a big way, gearing up to what he's calling "The 2000 Pie-mary."

It's a campaign that might make people who take their politics seriously blanch, but that won't slow Gordon Weinberger down.

Weinberger is the Top of The Tree Baking Co. CEO (headquartered in Londonderry) who travels the country in a painted school bus, practicing what he calls "guerilla marketing" for his apple and blueberry pies.

During "pie-mary season" he'll be traveling New Hampshire, as all effective politicians (he calls them "pie-liticians") do, from Coos to the sea.

He'll be holding meetings, he says, to discuss the relative merits of different flavors of pie; staging debates on Pie vs. "the dreaded cake;" and piloting the pie bus to any political event he can find, handing out pies and T-shirts, "getting out and touching people and shaking hands and hugging babies."

"Whatever a politician will do, we're going to do as a pie-litician," says Weinberger, via cell phone from the pie bus in New Orleans.

Along with the inevitable political road signs, look for the ones that say "Gordon's for Pie."

For the party nomination, says Linda German, Gordon's communications director, "we're going to beat Frost Heaves."

"The actual voting, that's serious stuff and we don't want to make a travesty of it," said German, "but we are going to make a lot of pie-litical noise on the sidelines."