Ernie Petrus, director of sales and marketing for Energizer Miniature Batteries, discusses the development and marketing of a product that has made the lives of hearing-aid users easier.

ep01.JPG (11037 bytes)Director of sales and marketing for Energizer Miniature Batteries, Ernie Petrus, poses next to the company’s mascot, the Energizer Bunny.

For years, they shared a weekly ritual. Every Sunday, they would sit at their kitchen tables, a towel stretched out before them. They hoped that their hands would be nimble, their vision strong, and that success would be in their grasp.

They are hearing aid users and this was their ritual for changing their hearing aid batteries.

According to Energizer research, many hearing aid users who are 50-plus years of age used to change their batteries once a week in the privacy of their homes, regardless of whether or not the batteries were dead. They did this to avoid the prospect of changing their hearing aid batteries in public, with prying eyes and the possibility of letting slip the minuscule power source that allowed them to hear.

That was before the fall of 2001 and the introduction of the Energizer EZ Change, the first hearing aid battery dispenser.

Ernie Petrus, director of sales and marketing for Energizer Miniature Batteries, led the development and marketing of the innovative product that would change the lives of hearing aid users. Petrus came to Energizer 21 years ago, straight from college. He began in the customer service department and, after earning an MBA, went on to national account sales, consumer electronic sales, and finally to the miniature batteries strategic business unit. During the last 4 years, Petrus has been in charge of North American sales and marketing. The unit operates globally, as a division of Energizer. Miniature batteries are used not only in hearing aids and watches, but also in car alarms, calculators, toys, and medical devices. Energizer is the sales leader in the miniature category.

“We have 83% share of the watch electronic category,” says Petrus. “And the Energizer EZ Change has propelled us to the number one dollar share in the retail hearing aid battery category.”

HPR: Tell us how the process that brought EZ Change to market began.

Petrus: Energizer has always been the leader in pioneering innovations in portable power. We introduced the first alkaline cell more than 40 years ago, the first AA lithium battery, and the first no mercury added battery. When I joined the miniature team, the challenge we faced was “How do we become number one in the hearing aid battery category?” We began with extensive research in order to identify unmet consumer needs. We observed hearing aid users in focus groups and in-home settings, watching the way they handled their batteries and exploring their attitudes toward hearing aids, including their rituals for changing the batteries.

HPR: What did you learn from your observations?

Petrus: We learned that hearing aid users did not feel they had a problem changing their batteries, despite the fact that the majority of them had a fairly elaborate process that involved changing their batteries at the same time and place each week. Initially, these consumers said they were comfortable with the way they had always changed their hearing aid batteries. It wasn’t until we spent a great deal of time talking with them in small group settings that, in fact, they began to express that changing their batteries was an awkward, frustrating, and difficult task. They admitted that they were uncomfortable with the prospect of being caught in public with a dead battery, and not being able to change it without dropping it or calling attention to themselves. So, we faced a unique challenge in that we developed the product concept for the Energizer EZ Change based on an inarticulated need.

HPR: How long ago was that study—and how did you proceed?

Petrus: That was 3 years ago. We began with a year and a half of research, talking with hundreds of consumers, audiologists, and hearing aid providers around the country to develop and refine the product concept. The product ideas were tested quantitatively and through additional focus groups. This led us to develop more than 20 prototypes—including several dispenser designs and enhanced tab and dial pack systems—before selecting the Energizer EZ Change that was overwhelmingly favored by consumers and audiologists. The EZ Change is the most tested and evaluated product in the Energizer Minia-ture division’s history.

HPR: Describe the product.

Petrus: The EZ Change is a patent-pending product that eliminates the need to handle the hearing aid batteries. The dispenser allows hearing aid users to properly insert the batteries quickly, easily, and accurately every time without the hassle of tabs. The product also gives the audiologist the freedom to prescribe the proper hearing aid to patients, regardless of problems of dexterity. It is a portable, convenient, easy-to-use device that eliminates the challenge of changing hearing aid batteries.

ep02.JPG (11287 bytes)Energizer EZ Change hearing aid battery changer.

HPR: What was the initial response to the EZ Change dispenser?

Petrus: The positive response we got from consumers was incredible. The EZ Change was overwhelmingly preferred to traditional hearing aid batteries. We knew we had hit a home run.

HPR: Tell us about how the division was organized, the launch plan, and the key players of the team that brought the product to market.

Petrus: Energizer Miniature Batteries is a small group within Energizer. We deliver 3% to 5% of the total company sales and are a strategic business unit that operates globally. As a small division, we wear many hats and work closely in cross-functional teams. The development of the EZ Change was a great case study of a fully integrated new product development effort. Dr Barbara Shamir led the extensive research effort with audiologists and consumers. Chase Design, a leading package design firm, developed the prototype for the product, addressing all of the ergonomic issues we faced. They took into account the special needs of the elderly and disabled users who have dexterity and vision problems. Chase was involved from day one, and was there every step of the way. Also on the team was our brand manager, Steve Einig, who was heavily involved in all aspects of the project, including overseeing development of the marketing plan. Elaine Sosnowski was the team leader of our plant operations and Ann McCarthy headed up our account team at CheckMark Communications, our advertising agency.

The common thread between all of these people and our organization is that we are all very passionate about what we are doing. Failure was not an option.

HPR: Describe the scope and design of the initial launch.

Petrus: We first introduced the product to the trade in the spring of 2001. The response among audiologists and retailers surpassed our expectations, and we had our strongest sell-in for a new product in the history of the division. The EZ Change was launched to consumers in the fall of 2001 with an aggressive marketing campaign that included the first-ever television advertising in the hearing aid battery category. The focus of our marketing efforts was to create awareness and educate consumers about the benefits of this new product, including its ease of use.

HPR: When did you know the product and its introduction was a success?

Petrus: When we first began showing the EZ Change to consumers and we heard feedback like: “Nobody’s ever thought about us before!” “Can I get this now?” “This is the best thing since sliced bread!” We knew the product would be a success, but we didn’t know that it would happen so quickly.

ep03.JPG (16485 bytes) Energizer headquarters, St Louis.

HPR: How did this product fit into the marketplace?

Petrus: The Energizer EZ Change represents a new segment in the hearing aid battery category and is the first major new product innovation in the category in more than 30 years. In addition to the product, we created new packaging for the EZ Change that is specifically designed to meet the needs of our 50-plus consumer target. We created a state-of-the-art, tamper-proof EZ View package that features easy-to-read instructions in large type with simplified graphics. Manufacturers, including Energizer, have not done the best job communicating to the senior market, so one of the main focuses of our newly designed package was readability. The packaging was part of a holistic approach to make sure that we communicated in a simple and direct way across all elements of the marketing mix.

HPR: Your product was successfully received. Was your product’s success solely the function of its design, product packaging, and instructions?

Petrus: We knew we had a true winner because we developed a “new-to-the-world” product that meets a real consumer need. In addition to the innovative product design and packaging, we attribute our success to a strong marketing effort that included the first television advertising in the category and strong merchandising support for retailers and audiologists.

HPR: Can you quantify that success for us?

Petrus: The Energizer EZ Change is growing the hearing aid battery category. Prior to its launch, category sales were flat. We starting shipping last September and already we have seen retailer dollar share up when they carry Energizer products predominantly. Consumers are going to retailers looking for the product; the feedback from retailers has been overwhelmingly positive. And, according to the latest AC Nielsen data for the most recent weeks, Energizer dollar share increased 89%, almost five times the growth of any of our branded competitors.

HPR: With the phenomenal success of the product, what are you planning next?

Petrus: We are expanding distribution of the product internationally, with plans to launch in Europe and Asia-Pacific English-speaking countries this year. We are also continuing our research to identify unmet needs in the marketplace. And we are continuing to refine and expand our product offerings. We have kept our line of traditional spin pack batteries available, giving audiologists and retailers both options. EZ Change has been 100% incremental for our business.

HPR: How have competitors responded?

Petrus: We’ve already seen a few competitive responses and, based on our strong sales growth over the past 6 months, we expect to see more. However, we are not worried about the competition—we’re concerned about what we can do to continue to enhance the lives of the hearing-impaired through innovation. That is the role of leadership. Leaders listen to their consumers and consumers vote with their dollars.

HPR: What are your long-range goals? What does the industry leader see in the future?

Petrus: Our long-range goal is to maintain market dominance and continue to enhance the lives of hearing aid users. We want to provide innovative solutions through new product, merchandising, consumer, and retail vehicles. We just announced that we are increasing the capacity of our hearing aid batteries up to 18%. With this increase, we are now giving hearing aid users the best of all worlds—longer battery life and precise placement of their batteries every time. We have a wealth of knowledge about hearing aid users because of the ongoing dialogue we have had with them over the past 3 years. So, we will continue to conduct research and continue to introduce products that meet consumer needs and bring real innovation to the category.

Carolyn Patricia Scott is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report.