But wait, there's more! -- 03/29/05

I learned something while reading yesterday's Providence Journal during breakfast.

Do you remember those ubiquitous television commercials in the late 1970s and early '80s for Ginsu knives?

I had always thought (as you probably did also) that the Ginsu knife was imported from Japan.

We were wrong.

Ginsu knives were manufactured in Ohio (and have since moved to Arkansas) and the telemarketing inspiration came from two Rhode Island entrepreneurs, Barry Becher and Ed Valenti.

These two friends -- one was an account executive (i.e., salesman) for a local television station and the other owned a pair of automobile transmission repair shops -- got together in 1975 to market Miracle Painter, a British product that supposedly allowed you to paint without drips. They created a television commecial showing someone painting a ceiling with Miracle Painter while wearing a tuxedo. (I can remember seeing that commercial.)

In 1978 Becher and Valenti were looking for new products when they found an Ohio knife company called Quikcut. The two friends began to brainstorm, trying to come up with a winning sales pitch. Andy Smith, the Journal's lead television writer, describes what happened:
They thought about implying the knives were English. Then German, French, Scandanavian, Russian, Arabian. Finally they turned to Japan.

They originally decided to call the knife the Samurai, and got the idea of opening their commercial by karate chopping a tomato. But they couldn't quite figure out how to incorporate the samurai theme.

By now, Valenti said, everyone was getting leary, and started blabbering in psuedo-Japanese. Someone -- no one remembers who -- uttered the word "ginsu," and a marketing legend was born.

They sold millions of knives with this invented Oriental name before leaving the direct marketing business twenty years ago. (Ginsu knives are still being sold; the Quikut Division of Scott Fetzer Co. is now owned by Warren Buffett.)

This story reminds me of something similar that happened in the Binghamton area of New York State. A group of four or five engineering and computer science students at the university thought they could support themselves through grad school by selling and installing computers and software systems.They needed a name for their business so they invented a Japanese-sounding name. (I'm sorry, but I regret that I do not remember what the name was.) This was a big help in getting them in the door to see local businesses because people assumed that they represented the local branch of some big Japanese high-tech company. They never claimed anything like that; they just let people jump to conclusions.

Valenti, now in his mid-fifties, runs a marketing and media buying company in Rhode Island, while Becher, at age 63, has retired and is living in Florida. They are now in the news and giving interviews and seeking publicity (they are scheduled to be on ABC's Good Morning America on Thursday morning) because they have just written a book.

Their book is called The Wisdom of Ginsu: Carve Yourself a Slice of the American Dream.

Operators are standing by.

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