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Culligan Man fades to background as company markets to millennials

A Culligan Water crew sets out from the Baxter offices. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch 1 / 4
Culligan Water's work team gathers in the vehicle bay at the company's Baxter facility. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 4
Culligan Water's blue and white building on Industrial Park Road in Baxter houses offices and a tidy multiple vehicle bay. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch 3 / 4
Jessi Johnson, left, and Kaitlyn Messerschmidt staff the front desks in the Culligan Water offices in Baxter. The business has been in the lakes area for about 65 years evolving with the times and sporting a fresh ad campaign to reach "life quenchers." Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch 4 / 4

The days of "Hey, Culligan Man" are coming to a close, but the business itself is still booming.

For younger generations who might not understand that reference, you're not alone.

The 1960s-70s advertising slogan likely strikes a chord with older folks, but Culligan Water, established in 1936, is doing away with the iconic phrase in efforts of appealing to millennials and an emerging group of consumers identified as "life quenchers."

"The life quenchers are not necessarily in a particular age demographic, but they are people that typically own their home, want a healthy lifestyle," LoAnn Reponen, general manager at Culligan Water Conditioning in Baxter, said, explaining this group of consumers is often particular about how they receive their goods and services.

"They want it done; they want it done right," she said. "They're going to do their research before, and they want it to be as simple as possible, and they also want the service aspect. They're busy, so they want it to be something that is all taken care of for them."

With the new goal of targeting life quenchers and millennials, marketing strategies are shifting at the water treatment company. One new initiative is simply adding the word "water" to the Culligan name.

"Doesn't that just make sense?" Reponen said, noting Culligan International spearheaded the effort in 2016 after realizing many millennial-aged consumers were not familiar with Culligan at all. "That was the biggest 'ah ha' moment."

Though the rebranding is still in the early stages, Reponen said indicators look positive.

"I think it's a journey, and it will take consistency and just to keep putting the same message out there, but I do think it's going to resonate with the younger folks," she said.

Along with the rebranding came new advertising campaigns that - unfortunately for some consumers - no longer focus on the famed Culligan Man.

"I think he's introduced humorously here or there," she said, "but now it's the little cute girl and guy."

That guy, she mentioned featured in a new ad campaign, might be recognizable to fans of the popular 1987 movie "The Princess Bride." A new Culligan commercial features actor Cary Elwes and his famous "as you wish" line. The ad, which first aired during the Golden Globe Awards in January, features a young girl who asks Elwes - her onscreen dad - for pasta, more bubbles for her bath and super clean ice cubes with her lemonade. "The Princess Bride" actor responds to every request with, "as you wish." The last scene then shows the actor raving to his neighbor about how his Culligan water helps with cooking great food and getting clothes soft and clean, while still tasting fantastic too.

Another relatively new Culligan commercial features family members doing several household activities, like cooking, showering and giving water to their pet dog, ultimately finishing with the tagline "your whole home drinks."

The idea with these new ad campaigns, Reponen said, is to market Culligan as a company that does it all for those millennials and life quenchers who want all of their services taken care of at once.

"We offer programs, the Culligan Advantage Program, where we do everything for them," Reponen said. "They don't have to put their own salt in, they don't have to change their own filter. ... They don't have to think about it."

With Baxter's Culligan branch offering residential and commercial water treatment, bottled water dispensers and coolers, in-home water testing, emergency repair and maintenance, online salt and bottled water ordering, and home and office water delivery, consumers can certainly leave most - if not all - up to their proverbial Culligan man and his team.

Three truck drivers hit the roads each day for deliveries, sometimes driving routes up to 200 miles and traveling as far as Hackensack, Remer and McGregor. Routes often expand in the summer, as the lakes area population increases exponentially, but the business accomplishes its work with its regular amount of employees.

"We just work harder, longer, faster, smarter," Reponen said, noting her branch sometimes has the "wonderful" challenge of trucks that aren't able to hold all the product needed for some delivery routes.

"That's where having a team that works together is definitely an asset because everybody pitches in to figure it out," she said.

Having been in the area for about 65 years, the Baxter Culligan branch deals heavily in filter replacements, Reponen said, rather than new water softeners, though that service is still available.

"And then, of course, our drinking water and bottled water," she added. "That's really the exciting part of our business now because the awareness of the drinking water has heightened, and we feel it's our obligation to educate people so they know what is potentially in their water and then how to treat it."

Culligan partners with A.W. Research Laboratories for testing purposes, as Culligan can test for indicators of contaminants but doesn't have a lab of its own identify harmful elements that may be in water.

"Because what we're talking about is so essential to life," Reponen said, "people need to not only have good working water but good drinking water."

Just like clean water is essential to everyday life, technology is becoming essential to Culligan's success, especially when it comes to allowing customers to buy goods and services online.

"It's the way people want to shop now," Reponen said. "We had to figure out a way to offer the same services and resources and stuff that we do but do it online. So we had to try to get those two to come together, where we still go into people's homes and do onsite water analysis with them."

Adapting to technological advances isn't the only change Reponen has seen during her roughly 35-year career with Culligan though. While working at a branch in the Twin Cities, she remembers the initial meeting that kicked off Culligan's bottled water service.

"Our owner, John Packard, said, 'We're going into the bottled water business,' and I remember thinking, 'Who is going to buy bottled water? That's crazy,'" she recalled, noting that change came less than 30 years ago, but in that time, Culligan's bottled water customer base has grown from just 12 in the metro area to more than 100,000.

Fast forward a few years from the bottled water undertaking to 1992, and another significant change occurred when Reponen moved from the Twin Cities to the lakes area to become the general manager at Culligan's new Baxter location.

"It was interesting in 1992 because a woman manager was not very common ... in our industry," she said. "That's part of, I think, the fun part of my personal journey, coming into a very male-oriented business and proving that a woman can do it if you have the right people."

Reponen came shortly after Culligan moved from its location on Washington Street in Brainerd to Industrial Park Road in Baxter in 1991.

"At that time it was a great location because it was right next to the railway," Reponen said of the previous Brainerd location, "and the salt would come in by railcar."

Now having been well-established in Baxter for more than two decades, Culligan Water Conditioning works not only to supply quality water services to the lakes area but to be an integral part of the community itself as well.

"It's kind of hard sometimes with some of the bigger businesses not to be - I hate to say cookie cutter - but not have the personal touch," Reponen said, explaining the company's owner encourages each of its 33 U.S. branches to be as involved in its local community as possible.

"Something that he has initiated in the last four years is what we call Culligan Cares," she added. "And that gives us in the dealership an opportunity to raise money for the community."

For the 13 employees at Culligan's Baxter location, that activism comes in the form of silent auctions and other events throughout the year to raise money for local nonprofits like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and Camp Confidence. Any money the employees raise for charity will be matched by the owner. Packard will also donate $25 for every hour an employee spends volunteering for a nonprofit.

"It's wonderful," Reponen said. "Every year I feel the employees are getting more and more engaged with it and we have fun."

Culligan owner Packard also encourages managers and leaders at each location to be involved with area organizations like the chamber of commerce or rotary club so they can remain active community members.

Along with supporting the community through involvement, as general manager at Culligan in Baxter, Reponen works to support the rest of the staff as well. She described her job as monitoring the business's financial status and making sure other staff members have the resources they need to accomplish their duties.

"A big part of my role is with the sales staff, making sure they have the tools and the coaching they need," she said. "And continuous improvement is one of our values, so we look toward that too."

But perhaps the best - and maybe even most important - part of her job at Culligan Water and Conditioning?

"Just basically making sure everybody is enjoying and loving their job," she said with a smile. "And I have wonderful people that I get to do it with every day."