After more than 40 years of selling lightweight vacuum cleaners

When you first tune into one of Oreck Corp.’s 30-minute infomercials, you might expect to see a celebrity host or DRTV personality touting the virtues of the Oreck XL upright vacuum cleaner or the Oreck air purifier, and that might suit the average top-level executive just fine. However, for company founder David Oreck, that simply won’t suffice. In fact, if the Oreck name surfaces on any product, you can be certain that he wants to be the one to speak about it. That’s his personal customer-satisfaction guarantee.

Oreck contends many consumers simply want to know whom they are doing business with. In fact, from day one, Oreck has put his face to his “household” name with every form of marketing–from direct-mail pieces to catalogs. He’s also become a familiar voice to radio listeners with Oreck’s campaigns on talk radio. In 2003 and 2004, Oreck made his mark in DRTV with two top-ranked infomercials and short-form spots.

Although the DRTV vehicle may still be new to Oreck, he certainly doesn’t show it on-air–he doesn’t even break a sweat. The truth of the matter is: he’s so passionate about his product and believes wholeheartedly in the quality of the brand that he’s as comfortable talking about the products’ features as he is flying his biplanes or riding his motorcycles. And, that’s no easy task when you’re 80 years old, with more than 40 years of sales and marketing experience under your belt.

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Call to Duty

David Oreck, a native of Duluth, Minn., enlisted in the Army Air Force at age 17. He flew bombing missions over Japan during World War II and once his service in the armed forces ended, Oreck ventured to New York City. “I’ve often said that ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ and so I went there and went to work for the RCA wholesaler. Luckily, that wholesaler handled Whirlpool [products],” recalls Oreck. He eventually worked his way up the ladder to salesman, where he gained valuable experience with household appliances such as televisions, washers, dryers, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. The company promoted Oreck to general manager soon after.

It was at that time that Whirlpool struggled to make a go of its upright vacuum cleaner line. However, Oreck believed a few design adjustments could entice consumers to buy the machines. Whirlpool gave its blessing to the budding entrepreneur and granted him exclusive rights to market the vacuums throughout the United States. RCA also allowed him to make his proposed design modifications and agreed to produce his prototype under the RCA Whirlpool label.

Oreck pounded the pavement going door-to-door to pitch his lightweight vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile, the RCA distributor was losing the race with its vacuum cleaner business and asked Oreck if he would be interested in buying the business to which the then 40-year-old entrepreneur agreed. In 1963, Oreck left RCA after 17 years of service.

An Uphill Battle

“So, I had at that time a good idea, a lot of energy, no money, and I started the company,” notes Oreck. But Oreck faced other obstacles at the onset–he had to silence his critics. The first act of disparagement began when he named the company Oreck Corp. “That wasn’t my first choice by the way,” he points out. “At the time I was working in New York, I had a search made on all the different names that I thought would be pretty good, [but] every one of them was taken. So then as a last resort I decided, ‘Well, hell, I’ll use my own name!’ At least that one wasn’t taken.”

The next problem the Oreck Corp. encountered was skepticism among established retailers. “Of course they said to me, ‘Nobody knows you, and I’ve never heard of your brand name. No one wants an unknown brand,'” Oreck recalls. To add insult to injury, he discovered his competitors denounced his eight-pound vacuum as a mere toy that wouldn’t work.

“My well-meaning friends said, ‘Put some lead in it because people will never buy anything that light. They equate heaviness with cleanliness.’ Of course, that was not the case, but that was what I was up against at the time,” he says.

Regardless, Oreck would not be discouraged. “Because of my experience with RCA in the appliance industry, I realized that unless you controlled your distribution, you would, in fact, be controlled by your distribution.” He also realized the only way he could compete in the marketplace was to develop a different channel of distribution.

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The first part of Oreck’s business gameplan was to sell direct-to-business. So, he approached the hotels and convinced them to let their housekeeping staff test the lightweight vacuums. Oreck explains, “My strategy was to go to hotels and get them to use the product and that would answer the question in the mind’s eye of the consumer: If it works well in a hotel, why wouldn’t it be fine in my home?”

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His plan going direct-to-business prevailed, which enabled him to tackle direct-to-consumer.

Growing a DR Business

Oreck’s initial marketing efforts began with direct mail, because he believed he could prospect to a demographic list that seemed more likely to buy his product. Shortly thereafter, the company moved into radio. “I started out doing talk radio in various markets,” Oreck says, “and then as we became a little more popular, we broadened that so today, we buy network radio …”

As demand for the Oreck brand grew, so did the company and its product line. Today, Oreck Corp. is headquartered in New Orleans, and produces vacuum cleaners, steam cleaners, air purifiers, irons and other household products for the general public from its manufacturing plant in Long Beach, Miss. In 1997, Oreck formed the Oreck Commercial division, with such clients as Marriott Hotels, Godiva Chocolatier and Dillard’s Department Stores.

The company was now poised for television. “We did some DRTV back in 1995, ’96 and ’97,” says Mary Beth Yasinski, who heads Oreck Corp.’s Direct Response division. “We had done 60-second and two-minute spots, and also some 10.”

But the company would soon find that home shopping would give their vacuum sales a significant boost, not to mention added exposure.