— Brunswick Billiards President John E. Stransky still shudders when he recalls seeing tired billiards tables stacked three high in a fluorescent-lit showroom in 1998.
"You wouldn't see pianos or dining tables stacked like that," he says, shaking his head.
For decades Brunswick, the oldest division of Lake Forest, Ill.-based leisure-products conglomerate Brunswick Corp., encouraged its 320 dealers to stack their tables so they could shoehorn more into showrooms. The no-frills selling style also suited the brand's reputation as a favorite among rough-hewn billiards buffs. Buffalo Bill Cody, after all, chose Brunswick tables for his tavern in Cheyenne.
Now, stacked tables are as distant a memory as the night the famed buffalo hunter wielded a pool cue to clear a room of unruly longshoremen. Stransky is pressing retailers to install fancy $100,000 displays. The "pavilions," as he calls them, spotlight tables on polished hardwood floors, under flattering track lights and beamed cathedral ceilings.
Hold on to your Stetson. Hard-core players aren't the target. Neither, exactly, are the well-to-do men who made up 90 percent of Brunswick Billiards' $75 million in 2002 sales. Stransky, 51, is courting suburban women and interior designers with big houses to fill.
It's the marketing equivalent of a cross bank shot. But after playing to the man's man who likes to bond with his pals while bending over 158-year-old Brunswick's green felts, Stransky says it's time to cue up a different strategy. See, pool tables in homes on leafy cul-de-sacs are "male-initiated, wife-approved," or so Brunswick learned in recent market research.
Make that "disapproved." In focus groups women complained that Brunswick's weighty, carved tables didn't go with sleek home furnishings from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. Add to that their usual concern that billiards is another macho pastime that would compete for their hubbies' attention.
How to grab theirs? Enter, in stilettos, Ewa Laurance and Jeanette Lee. The pool-playing vixens are all the rage in the Women's Professional Billiard Association and at its tournaments, televised on ESPN — and not just among guys. Of the 400,000 viewers who tune in on an average evening, 15 percent are women, which is why Brunswick is now paying $1 million a year to be the league's table sponsor.
It's great exposure. Brunswick's name is hard to miss when Laurance and Lee slink onto the rails for a tough shot. Men no doubt notice their legs, but Stransky bets women also focus on the tables' silhouettes, which have been overhauled.
Sleek, New Designs Lift Sales
Off-camera, Brunswick's sleekest design yet is the Manhattan, one of two contemporary tables it recently unveiled. A $15,000, steel-and-maplewood creation, it can be customized with teal-colored felt. Stransky isn't bothered by eye-rolling among loyalists: "Blindfolded, the professionals say these feel just like our other tables," says he.
Other elements won't be so familiar. Brunswick is pushing accessories and game-room packages that help design-conscious gals trick out a game room. There's a Brunswick player's chair ($750), a standing bar ($2,375)and a $1,150 foosball table. Such froufrou is now 12 percent of Brunswick's sales, up from 2 percent five years ago. Those items have helped boost the division's profits 50 percent to $5.5 million during that time.
There's evidence the marketing effort is hitting its unusual mark. Despite the lackluster economy, sales of pool tables and accessories rose 8.9 percent last year at the billiards company, based in Bristol, Wis. At the same time it's changing the way Brunswick sees its mission. "Basically, we're in the furniture business," Stransky says.
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