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Personal Best: Cosmetics DMer Tova Borgnine is her own top salesperson

By Nov 30, 1999

Well, hellooo, darling!”

Tova Borgnine stands at her polished black granite desk, reflected by a floor-to-ceiling mirror, surrounded by silver picture frames and Lalique crystal. Holding a telephone receiver in her French-manicured fingers, she speaks to the man whose face, in effect, launched her Tova mini-empire.

OK, Ernest Borgnine is not exactly an icon of personal beauty. Credit Tova with making him one. Briefly. Two decades ago, this fifth Mrs. Borgnine launched her beauty business by testing “face-lift-in-beauty business by testing “face-lift-in-a-jar” on her husband’s famous jowls.

Since then, Tova Borgnine, proprietor of Tova Corp., has wrought several other unlikely events. She has, for instance, sold 4 million bottles of perfume by direct response TV, without emitting one whiff of the scent. She has pushed high-priced beauty products through low-end tabloids. She has created her own Borgnine celebrity through home-shopping shows that feature everything from Tova face cream to “Tova.calm” spa products to Tova incense. She’s now on QVC in the U.S. and Britain, and plans to enter Germany next fall. Next year, she’ll open Tova spas in scattered hotels worldwide, and build a Tova Wellness Institute in Beverly Hills, CA.

Ernest who?

Let’s talk “Tova” fragrance for a moment. With her stately bearing and “just-us-girls” delivery – Borgnine in 3.5 minutes once unloaded 33,000 bottles on QVC. You could argue that it’s because the fragrance is pitched as clean and non-irritating; but the real reason is Borgnine herself. “When women look at Tova,” says Kathy Levine, senior program host at QVC, “they look at a woman who is obviously not in her teens but is so elegant and classy and successful and married happily – and they apply the story to the fragrance. It becomes a mantra: I want to be Tova!”

In truth, Tova isn’t all that big in the cosmetics industry. This year, Tova Corp. will sell between $16 million and $20 million in perfumes and skin creams. That’s a teeny fraction in the $25.6 billion industry, according to research firm Klein & Co. (Just by comparison, Victoria’s Secret alo ne sells more than $300 million in creams and fragrance.)

Tova is, however, unique. The elegant Mrs. Borgnine, with her trademark upswept ‘do and custom-fitted suits, has never peddled her $40 face masques and $50 perfumes where one would expect, such as Saks or Bergdorf’s or Vogue. She’s made her money straight from direct.

“The whole thing is an amazing American phenomenon,” says Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, with perhaps just a touch of hyperbole. When it comes to selling fragrance, Borgnine “had the courage and willingness to try a new medium.”

“Courage” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind in Borgnine’s presence. Or, for that matter, “direct marketer.” Rather, the Norwegian-born, fiftysomething Borgnine at first makes you think of women who exist solely to make gentlemen doff their hats and open car doors. Even at celebrity-ridden Spago, the dining establishment next to the Tova Salon in Beverly Hills, Borgnine enters like a bit of royalty, leaning forward on patent leather spike heels to air-kiss the maitre’d, then turning to greet Larry King and Nancy Reagan, seated at a nearby table. It’s reported that Nancy Reagan is a Tova customer; Borgnine tactfully does not mention this.

Instead, Borgnine’s business conversation, like the company itself, tends to follow its own graceful yet idiosyncratic course. Over the course of two hours, Borgnine speaks both of profit-sharing and wellness philosophies; of “taking ancient philosophies into the millennium” (the aim of her “Tova.calm” line) and of eventually taking the company public.

Many times, you’re reminded of the woman who throws kisses and beams smiles to her QVC customers. Other times, you’re made aware of just how those smiles have paid off: “We’re right now number one in beauty products on QVC,” she says.

“We’ve increased [QVC] sales volume 32% in 1998, and this year we’ll grow another 15%. We just started in the U.K., and sold out. We’ve had 341% growth there in a year.”

Of course, Borgnine’s not the only one doing well in direct response beauty today. Lately, high-end brands like Nicole Miller have launched skin-care lines through the mail, “to make things easier for the working woman,” says spokeswoman Karen Ruiz. Web sites like gloss.com now compete with drugstores and department stores in pushing makeup and nail products.

Skin-care brands like Yves Rocher and AlphaMax appear on infomercials and on Home Shopping Network. And plenty of celebs, including Cher, Susan Lucci, Victoria Principal and Stefanie Powers, have their lines of cosmetics and fragrances on the tube.

Arguably, though, Tova was there first. “She really set the standard,” says Green.

What makes Tova’s operation tick? It’s hard to say. Tova Corp., for instance, is not a typical direct marketing entity. Although it has a catalog of beauty products, last year it printed only 300,000 books, while most similar-sized mail order companies might send out up to 3 million.

Most of those catalogs were packed in with QVC orders, which comprise 60% of her sales. The rest were mailed to the “nucleus of current customers,” says COO Barry Mathes.

Mathes admits that prospecting and other list-building techniques aren’t something the company really frets about. Only recently, in fact, did the firm take out a direct-response ad in New Woman, its first magazine advertising in several years. “We don’t go for volume lists,” he says. “It’s more word of mouth.”

So does the company have a customer database? Not really. Its Web site, beautybytova.com, just got off the ground in September, and so far, “the numbers are small,” says Mathes. QVC, which accounts for about 60% of the company’s sales, doesn’t share customer names with Tova, not even when they’re buying Tova products. Tova’s own list numbers about 45,000 customers, including expires, which Mathes admits haven’t been cleaned out in a while. All he says about Tova’s customers, in fact, is that they look a lot like the typical QVC hopper:”25 to 35 years old, with two kids, who lives on a cul-de-sac and drives a minivan.” Average order is $75-plus.

Meanwhile, Tova Corp. is also not a typical cosmetics or fragrance company. Most cosmetics lines are launched at retail, and usually by extremely large and well-heeled corporations. Retail cosmetics rollouts are wildly expensive, often costing more than the worth of Borgnine’s mini-empire.

In fact, the best way to define “Tova” is through Tova. When it comes to company history, the boundary between Tova the person and Tova the corporation appears no thicker than eyebrow pencil.

The way Borgnine tells it, Tova Corp. practically fell into her lap. In 1978, a customer at the Tova salon passed on to Borgnine a jar of cactus-extract face cream supposedly derived from Aztec beauty formulas.

Borgnine used it on Ernie. Ernie spilled the beans to a friend. The friend wrote a newspaper story mentioning Borgnine’s swankier skin and his wife’s “face-lift-in-a-jar.” The story was picked up by UPI, which, she says, “happened to” mention a price of $60. Within days, Borgnine received $56,000 in orders.

As Borgnine puts it, Cactus Masque was a perfect DM product. “It adhered to three principles of Marketing 101″: ancient formula, Hollywood endorsement, and a price point high enough to take seriously. On the other hand, Borgnine didn’t see herself in direct mail. She wanted Cactus Masque in Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks didn’t. Moreover, a minimal retail inventory would have cost her $10 million. “In retail,” Borgnine says, “that’s where you have to play.”

Logic then called for advertising in beauty magazines, but “at that time, no one in their right mind would cut a page out of Vogue for a coupon,” she says. Running ads in the back of the titles would have meant sitting alongside bosom enhancers and diet candies. “That was not,” she says, “what I wanted.”

So she went back to the golden goose. In 1979, Borgnine took a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, “which had not been tested with any beauty product,” she says. After the National Enquirer ran its own piece on Borgnine’s “face-lift-in-a-jar” – netting 22,000 requests the first day – Borgnine started buying space in the tabloid. “You have a slot machine,” she says, with a lift of a perfectly drawn brow. “Are you going to walk away from it?”

The ads, featuring the beaming Borgnines, “reached deep into the guts of people,” says copy guru Herschell Gordon Lewis, who worked with Borgnine in the late 1970s. “There was this American dream back then that people thought they could improve themselves without working at it.” What’s more, he says, nobody else was on Borgnine’s turf. “The benefit of direct marketing is that you have no competition except as you announce it. The competition they announced was going under the knife. You’ve got to hand it to these people for timing and concept.”

As time went on, though, Borgnine couldn’t resist trying highbrow appeals. After winning over Enquiring minds, she created a catalog in 1981 that sold, among other things, a $100,000 custom-designed Mercedes and a $398,000 jewel-encrusted tiger sculpture. The book went mainly to high-end rental lists, ostensibly to get well-heeled customers interested in Tova fragrances. “I was going to compete with the Neiman-Marcus catalog,” she says. Neiman Marcus had no worries. “Our credibility,” she admits, “was not established by going from Cactus Queen to $100,000 cars.”

By the mid 1980s, Borgnine added Burt Reynolds to her catalog, who endorsed his own line of “BR” skin creams and razors. She also added Reynolds’ Arabian stallion to the product mix, as well as a $117 million Concorde. The horse and plane didn’t sell, and Reynolds bowed out for personal reasons, but “ultimately the catalogs helped [position] the fragrance and skin care lines,” she claims.

But not enough. By the late `80s, sales had stalled. The Tova catalog – by then a toned-down book of accessories, fragrance and skin-care products – mailed four times annually to 500,000 names, but 70% of the business still came in through the company’s mainstay audience, the wives and moms flipping through Sunday supplements and the Daily News.

With that in mind, Borgnine in 1989 produced a Tova infomercial, then killed it. Infomercials, she says, “are so canned. I knew that was not going to be in my best interest.”

She then called QVC for a meeting – “and there was a long time between the call and the meeting.” QVC finally granted her 15 minutes to make her pitch to the show executives. An hour and a half later, she walked out with a deal and by 1991 Tova fragrance was on the air.

Apparently, that’s when Borgnine really hit her mark. “No one before had done it,” says Green. “Fragrance is not something you can get your arms around. Fragrance is imagery. If you believe in what you’re selling, people will at least try it. And Tova believes in it.”

Borgnine’s latest hopes are for her “Tova.calm” line, which bowed on QVC in October. Settled in an oversized chair, surrounded by candles, wearing socks – “I never wear socks!” – Borgnine pitches her line as “aromatherapeutic,” “universal” and adhering to “ancient philosophies.” For several products, the first show was a sellout. Says Green, “Tova knows women are looking to fragrance to give more than a pretty scent.”

Will Tova spas and “wellness” centers help the cause? Hard to say. Like the Neiman-Marcus-type catalogs, they might just end up as expensive marketing tools, lending credibility to products used by minivan moms.

Regardless, Borgnine seems pleased with having steered Tova’s eccentric course as far as she has. “Retail and direct marketing have long had a copycat syndrome,” she says during her Spago soiree. “Whatever anyone else is doing, I will most likely do just the opposite.”

  • Barbara

    I have known Tova since she got started and became a national spokes person for the U.S. Scleroderma Foundation. She is just like you see her on T.V., nothing phoney, just a doll of a lady and I say that with a lot of respect for what she has done in this business. Her products are every bit as she claims, just look at her – W O W. Don’t we all wish we looked as classy as Tova?
    Hang in there girl.
    Barbara W.