About a year ago, some top merchandisers at a major health products distributor were astonished to discover that their top-selling sunscreen was one they had done nothing to promote.
The low-profile product, TI-Screen, is manufactured by T/I Pharmaceuticals Inc., a tiny Irvine firm.
Despite scant consumer advertising, TI-Screen has built a following in California's highly competitive sun-lotion market by relying almost entirely upon the recommendations of dermatologists.
"It is what you call a sleeper," said Jeanne McKay, manager of merchandising for Bergen Brunswig, an Orange-based health care products distributor.
McKay said she was surprised by the strong showing of TI-Screen when she looked up the company's sales statistics at the request of Lou Silverman, a former Revlon executive from New York who was checking out T/I Pharmaceuticals as a potential career opportunity.
TI-Screen is not a big-league player among sunscreens. It has captured only about 1.1% of the national market, compared to Coppertone's 21%, according to a survey by Pipeline Research, a market research firm in Wayne, N.J.
And it is handicapped by its name, which lacks both widespread public recognition and marketing flair.
According to one insider, TI stands for "ten investors"--sales alumni from Syntex Laboratories in Palo Alto who formed T/I Pharmaceuticals in 1979 to market moisturizers and shampoos.
In 1980, T/I acquired the rights to a sunscreen formula developed by a research team at Harvard Medical School. TI-Screen, which is manufactured on a contract basis by other firms, made its market debut in 1983.
Controlling ownership of T/I Pharmaceuticals was acquired in 1986 by Webber Inc., a small, privately owned pharmaceutical firm in Toronto, Canada.
T/I lacks the marketing clout of such corporations as Plough Inc., which owns Coppertone, or Bristol Meyers, which has another major sun lotion product, PreSun, in its stable of skin-care products.
Silverman, formerly vice president of major sales accounts for Revlon's fragrances and cosmetics, said T/I suffered in the past from mismanagement and marketing blunders.
Among other things, he said, it failed to capitalize on its once unique status as the first effective sunscreen based on a formula that contains no Para-aminobenzoic acid, which irritates the skin of some users.
Nonetheless, Silverman said he was so impressed by the quality of T/I's products and their backing by dermatologists that he accepted an offer a year ago to become a consultant to the firm. In February, he took on the job of general manager.
So far, Silverman has managed to make T/I Pharmaceuticals more profitable and has launched more aggressive consumer advertising that stresses the importance of using sun protectors to guard against skin cancer and wrinkles.
He estimated that the company's sales will double to $3 million this year from $1.5 million in 1987. He said the company has also rebounded from a loss of about $340,000 in 1987 to a profit of about $318,000 through June of this year.
Silverman has cut back the company's thinly spread national sales staff and concentrated marketing of TI-Screen in California, which now represents 80% of the sunscreen's sales.
T/I Pharmaceuticals has begun sponsoring free cancer screenings at drugstores and is passing out samples and product brochures at sports events such as a surfing invitational in Solana Beach and a Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tournament in San Jose. TI-Screen also has begun advertising on local radio and cable television sports programs.
The company is basing its marketing strategy on "educating" the public. Silverman says consumers no longer will buy products based on lighthearted sales pitches, such as the playful dog pulling at a tot's swimsuit in traditional Coppertone ads.
"It is not a joke anymore," he said. "People die from skin cancer."
The change of pace at T/I hasn't gone unrecognized in the industry. Malcolm Proudfoot, toiletries buyer for Chicago-based Osco Drug Inc., said that for the first time, all Osco stores on the West Coast will be required next summer to stock four TI-Screen lotions, including one for infants. The increased stocking is being implemented in response to customer demand, he said.
Mitchel Goldman, a San Diego dermatologist, said when he recommended TI-Screen to his patients several years ago, "they could never find it" in drugstores.
Goldman said he was among the young doctors that T/I Pharmaceuticals salesmen began courting in the early 1980s. At the time, he was a resident in dermatology at UCLA Medical School. "They really won the hearts of dermatologists," he said.
Sales Up by 34%
Jim Greenhaus, general manager of Pipeline Research, which tracks sales of over-the-counter and prescription drugs, said that T/I Pharmaceuticals sold 34% more bottles of sunscreen during the 12 months ended in May than it did during the previous 12 months.