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Old products, new generations

Jeffrey S. Himmel makes his living bringing back the near dead.

Ovaltine. Gold Bond Medicated Powder. And this spring, at a supermarket or drugstore near you, Breck shampoo.

Himmel, chairman of the Himmel Group of Lake Worth and New York, specializes in reviving neglected and downtrodden products.

"We look for brands that are well-known but mistaken for dead," Himmel said. "And we bring them back to life."

Since buying the rights to Ovaltine in 1992, annual sales of the malt and chocolate flavorings for milk have tripled to $39-million. Himmel Group bought Gold Bond in 1990, and in five years, it increased sales to $27-million from $1.5-million.

Himmel is restoring not just old flavors and fragrances, but genuine pieces of Americana. Ads featuring the Breck Girls are found in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Ovaltine's 50-year-old marketing gimmicks, such as the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring, live on in antiques stores, among collectors and on the Internet.

Himmel, 48, learned about the product rehabilitation business from his father, Martin, who started the company in 1960 to market health and beauty aids.

The company hit it big 13 years later, when it paid $300,000 for a languishing product called Topol Smoker's Tooth Polish. A decade later, Topol's annual sales were $23-million. Martin Himmel's other product revivals included Lavoris Mouthwash, Doan's Pills for Backache Pain and Cuticura Medicated Soap.

The company never made the products it sold. It focused on marketing. The key was repetitive TV advertising that was produced inexpensively and often ran at odd hours, when ad rates were cheap.

With Ovaltine, developed by a Swiss chemist in 1904, Jeffrey Himmel knew he had a story to sell. The malt and chocolate drink mixes became popular in the 1930s. In the 1970s, then-New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath proclaimed in ads: "Any friend of Ovaltine is a friend of mine."

By the 1990s, though, Ovaltine had become a "dinosaur brand," according to Adweek magazine. A big reason was the rise of Nestle's Quick, which had a stronger chocolate taste that appealed more to kids.

Himmel developed a series of TV and radio spots capitalizing on nostalgia and emphasizing nutrition. He also introduced a new flavor, rich chocolate, to go with Ovaltine's traditional malt and malt chocolate.

Rich chocolate has become Ovaltine's leading flavor.

Not all Himmel's brands have been hits. In 1992 his company bought the rights to Marezine, an over-the-counter motion sickness pill. Sales were slow, and the company has stopped advertising it.

Himmel also struck out with 110-year-old Bromo Seltzer, an antacid he licensed in 1994. Once a giant with its "Gimme a Bromo" slogan, Bromo Seltzer had shrunk to a minuscule presence in the antacid category, competing against Alka Seltzer, Tums and a host of others. Soon after the licensing deal was signed, the manufacturer quit making the product.

In June, Himmel bought the licensing rights to Breck shampoo from Dial Corp.

The famous Breck Girl magazine ads, begun in the 1930s, gave the brand much of its appeal. The ads, done in pastels, featured soft-focus portraits of beautiful young women with magnificent hair. Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs and Kim Basinger were Breck Girls.

The shampoo lost much of its luster after the Breck Girl campaign ended in 1978. Dial, which bought the brand in 1990, discontinued it in 2000.

Himmel says he has no plans to revive the Breck Girls when he relaunches the shampoo this spring. But the packaging will be familiar. Himmel spent months trying to find old Breck bottles, particularly the signature gold-colored ones. He found a few in a Massachusetts museum and used them to re-create the Breck look.

Himmel has changed the shampoo modestly, making it thicker so it will create more lather.

"The color and the fragrance is the same as it was," he says. "It will touch a chord, an emotional chord. We brought Ovaltine back to life, and we're thrilled about the prospect of bringing Breck back."