Originally created 10/30/04

Lifting of curse creates dilemma for marketers



BOSTON - Unbelievable as it may seem, not everyone in New England is thrilled about the Red Sox winning the World Series.

Retailers of everything from T-shirts to ice cream and cookies had been making money off the team's championship drought for years. When the Red Sox finished off a World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday to win their first title since 1918, the long-reliable marketing strategy fell apart.

But the retailers aren't surrendering to history; they're just modifying their message. An ice cream company is staging a contest to rename its "Reverse the Curse" flavor, and apparel makers are trying gimmicks like printing the word "curse" backward to signify its reversal.

"This is a challenge for creative thinking," said Stephen A. Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor and marketing expert.

No matter what new slogans emerge, retailers admit it will be tough to top "The Curse of the Bambino," named because of Boston owner Harry Frazee's decision to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

"I think it's naive to think it won't tail off some," said Chuck Green, president and chief executive of Brigham's Ice Cream, the company behind the flavor renaming contest. "But a lot of people said, 'Just because we won, don't stop making this stuff.' We think it has a little more legs to it than what I would call 'hula hoops' items."

Brigham's, which sells its ice cream at its 26 Boston-area shops and at supermarkets, introduced the Reverse the Curse flavor in May. A pair of spiritualists blessed the first batch produced at the Arlington factory as a hired Babe Ruth-lookalike took off a Yankees jersey to display a Red Sox shirt underneath.

The flavor - vanilla with chocolate, fudge, caramel and peanuts - became the fastest-selling new flavor in the chain's 90-year history.

At a downtown store on Thursday, the line of customers extended out onto the street, and owner Vinnie Jankord placed special orders to keep the flavor in stock.

Green credits the flavor for a nearly 10 percent sales increase in his company's 16-flavor line over the baseball season.

Brigham's plans to announce a winner of its renaming contest on Sunday. The company is making good on the promise it made in the spring, when Brigham's counted itself among the Sox optimists expecting 2004 to be the year the curse was broken.

Hundreds of suggestions from customers - including some unprintable references to the hated Yankees - have been narrowed down to four finalists: Curse Reversed, Believe It, Sox Rock and Fenway Faithfuls.

Greyser said getting customers hooked on the flavor, rather than its name, is the key to its survival. Non-edible curse-themed products like shirts, hats and posters may be doomed, however.

That hasn't stopped retailers from rushing out gear this week carrying phrases such as "From cursed to first," "Now I can die in peace" and "It happened in my lifetime."

Moments after Wednesday night's game ended at 11:40 p.m. EDT, LogoSportswear.com began offering T-shirts and caps bearing the word "curse" in reverse text. The shirts feature an image of a gravestone reading "RIP 1918-2004."

Dozens of orders were coming in every hour on Thursday, and the shirt was outselling more conventional "Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series Champions" shirts 10-to-1, said Frank Nevins, owner and president of the Cheshire, Conn.-based business.

"I think there's a certain kind of spiritual effect that this Red Sox victory has had for the fans," he said.

The curse legend has been chronicled in books, including Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy's "The Curse of the Bambino," which has had more than 20 printings since 1990 and been updated three times to add a total of 41 pages.

But Shaughnessy suspects the book's popularity is past.

"I would think it would be time for that book to hit the road," Shaughnessy said. "It now stands as ancient history."

In February, Shaughnessy began writing a new Red Sox book to be published in March. The working title: "Reversing the Curse."