From popcorn to pasta sauce, Newman's Own has bloomed into a mainstay among packaged foods, and its folksy approach to PR has companies lining up for a piece of the action.Products associated with Hollywood hot shots, sports stars, and other celebrities regularly come and go in the American marketplace. If the endorser is hot, the product can perform reasonably well. Once the star starts to fade, the product's sales often follow. But the Newman's Own line of salad dressings, pasta sauces, popcorn, and other offerings has bucked that trend. Using savvy PR and image crafting, the company that began as a lark for photogenic film star Paul Newman has blossomed into a mainstay on the gourmet food scene, boasting annual sales of $190 million. Newman himself has been quoted as saying that more young consumers today think of him as a salad dressing maker than a film star. Of course, having Newman's picture on every product hasn't hurt. Now well established as a major packaged-foods venture, the Westport, CT-based company continues to position itself as a hobby of Newman's. The star remains a public face for the company, appearing at various promotional events, but his PR staff won't speak publicly about their efforts. Kirsten McKamy, PR manager for the company, wrote in an e-mail: "As you may or may not know, Mr. Newman takes a low-key approach to publicity." Indeed, McKamy seems almost embarrassed by the attention the company has gotten lately, thanks to its new affiliation with McDonald's and to a new book, Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good, authored by Newman and A.E. Hotchner, cofounder of Newman's Own. The head of a San Francisco-based PR firm that works with Newman's Own Organics - a now-independent company run by Newman's daughter Nell - takes a similar stance: "We're idiosyncratic in the way we do PR. [We're] not quite sure how it helps to have the way we do things out there in the trades." So unsure, in fact, that the head refused to reveal the firm's name. But those familiar with Newman's Own say a look at how it has succeeded can provide a PR blueprint for other food companies that want to build the same type of brand loyalty. "What can profit-taking companies learn from Newman's Own?" asks Ellen Ryan Mardiks, worldwide director of marketing and brand strategy at Golin/ Harris International. "Connect honestly and openly with the people who buy your products. Know what they care about and support it. Stay true to two things: your values and your brand." Food for the cause Since its founding in 1982, Newman's Own has given its profits - more than $150 million - to causes that support the arts, affordable housing, children, disaster and hunger relief, education, the elderly, and environmental causes. While other companies don't make a habit of donating all their profits, they can still learn from the firm's dedication to causes. In fact, Newman's Own was involved in cause-related marketing before the term even existed. "For them, corporate philanthropy is more than a sidebar," says Jennifer English, founder of the Food & Wine Radio Network. "[Newman's Own is] a perfect case study of what makes it work. They struck chords of credibility. Consumers will embrace you when you're about the same things they are." The only press releases on the Newman's Own website detail contributions to such organizations as UNICEF - a UN organization dedicated to child welfare - and Habitat for Humanity, among others. Organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm is involved in co-promotions with Newman's Own because it feels the two companies share common values that resonate with consumers. Stonyfield donates 10% of its profits to causes that support conservation and revitalization of the planet, notes Cathleen Toomey, Stonyfield's VP communications. "Together we believe you can change the world one cup of yogurt and one bottle of salad dressing at a time," she says of the Newman's Own alliance. "Our belief is that people vote at the checkout counter. Companies can learn from Newman's Own that consumers care about a company's values and mission. That drives a very powerful form of brand loyalty that advertising can't buy." While the best-known charitable cause of Newman's Own is the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for sick children, the company supports a wide range of other causes, developing consumer loyalty in related areas along the way. L. Phillips Brown, president of the Yavapai Humane Society in Prescott, AZ, was stunned when his group received a $2,500 grant from Newman's Own Organics. "They truly are supporting animal well-being," Brown says. "You like to support a company that is supporting other organizations you like to help." Nona Snyder, director of PR for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, says Newman has been a generous supporter of her organization. "We don't think of them [Newman and his wife] as celebrities," she says. "They're our neighbors." The halo effect Unlike some stars, Newman prefers to perform his good deeds with limited fanfare, which only adds to his mystique, according to Snyder. "They don't want to be part of a photo op - they don't have to," she says. "The low-key approach is what he's done and is why he's successful. You feel like you're buying Newman's Own from your next-door neighbor. He makes you feel like his friend." Even the way the company has rolled out new offerings speaks to the image of a low-key organization trying to bring consumers good products, opposed to a conglomerate blanketing the food aisles with every new product imaginable, says English. By picking and choosing its products, the company is saying a new product is "so good, we had to share it with our neighbors," English says. The folksy feeling associated with Newman's Own products comes directly from Newman, who either writes or reviews all the copy on packaging that describes the products, says Stonyfield's Toomey. Labels on Newman's Own goods may have started as a goof, but they've turned into part of the company's overall image. In an excerpt from Newman's new book published by Time in November, Newman and Hotchner write: "On the label we poke fun at the usual corny hype on our competitors' bottles with Nomen Vide Optima Expecta ('See the Name, Expect the Best')." "They established their brand essence early and they didn't waiver," says Grace Leong, president of Hunter Public Relations in New York. "That PR program has paid off for them. We hold them up as a stellar example of how food marketing should be done." Newman's Own tapped into a growing desire in the US for natural, high-quality products, and Newman's Own Organic is doing the same in the growing organic market, notes Stacy Bender, president of the Bender Hammerling Group. Although the companies are now separate, Newman's Own Organics is benefiting from the image created by Newman's Own, Bender contends. The company has enhanced its quality image to the point where others now want to be associated with it because of the halo effect. McDonald's specifically went after Newman's Own as a partner for its new salads to convince its critics that it was serious about offering healthy meal alternatives on its menu. "That's brilliant on their end," says Bender. "If you're a major player or brand that cares, that's a very strong message to consumers." Newman's Own not only gained a major new distribution channel, but also enhanced its own image by being seen as helping a fast-food giant move into healthier offerings. Similarly, a co-packaging agreement between Newman's Own and Costco is helping distinguish the warehouse giant from its competitors, says Toomey. "For Newman's to put their signature on a Costco product is enormous," she notes. "It shows that Costco is brand conscious and looking for quality brands." Food PR experts agree, the success of Newman's Own likely will outlive Newman himself if the company can maintain its image for quality and philanthropy. "It's not a success because it's a celebrity product," contends Leong. "Its quality and people feel good about buying the product. Consumers are interested in your values if you can make them real." Bender concurs. "I think his legacy will live on," he says. "It's like Atkins." English likens Newman to Walt Disney in creating a company that is also part cultural icon. It will be interesting to see if the cultural icon that is Newman's Own can continue to grow with its image of quality and philanthropy. COO Tom Indoe told The New York Times last year that the company now sells products to 14% of US households and that he sees that potentially expanding to 35%. That means he's hoping the philanthropic message resonates with a third of US consumers. If it does, the message will be clear for other consumer-goods companies: Don't just talk about causes; live them, and reflect that in every message you put out to consumers.