Robert E. Elberson, the Hanes Corp. executive who introduced L’eggs, the pantyhose sold in unique egg-shaped containers, and made it the best-selling U.S. hosiery brand by marketing it in supermarkets and drugstores, has died. He was 84.
He died on Feb. 26 at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to the website of Hankins & Whittington Funeral Service. No cause of death was given.
On his way up the corporate ladder to chief executive officer of Hanes Corp. and then president of its parent, Sara Lee Corp., Elberson played a role in the creation of one of America’s most distinctively packaged and displayed brands.
“Nothing beats a great pair of L’eggs” went its famous marketing campaign.
As Forbes magazine recounted in a 1980 article, Elberson discovered as president of Hanes’s hosiery division in 1968 that the company was still relying on department-store sales even though pantyhose was becoming big business in supermarkets and drugstores.
A market analyst tasked by Elberson to study Hanes’ hosiery competition reported a highly fragmented market in food and drug stores. So Elberson, in what Forbes called “his methodical, building-block way,” then asked an advertising agency to design a hosiery product with a memorable name and consistent quality that was easy to keep in stock and wouldn’t share a rack with the competition.
The designer, Roger Ferriter of Herb Lubalin Inc., “compressed a pair of pantyhose in his fist and noticed that the package would be an egg,” which he realized rhymed with leg, which could be rendered with a French flair as L’egg, Rob Wallace and Bronwen Edwards wrote in “Really Good Packaging Explained” (2009).
As Elberson had wished, the egg-shaped product required a display that wouldn’t hold competitors’ hosiery. To make sure the displays were always full, Elberson distributed L’eggs to stores on consignment, with Hanes representatives responsible for keeping them stocked.
The system worked so well, Forbes reported, that Elberson cut short a planned year-long test and began rolling out the displays nationally in the fall of 1970.
“We have the entire country gridded by square block,” Elberson said in 1980, according to Forbes. “We know where every rack of L’eggs is. Our competition has underestimated the effectiveness of these elaborate controls.”
Hanes was acquired in 1979 by Chicago-based Consolidated Foods Corp., which in 1985 changed its name to Sara Lee Corp. Sara Lee in 2006 spun off its apparel business into Hanesbrands Inc. (HBI:US), based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Robert Evans Elberson was born on Nov. 9, 1928, in Winston- Salem, according to Marquis Who’s Who. His parents were Charles E. and Harriet B. Elberson, according to Hankins & Whittington, the Charlotte-based funeral home.
He earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from Princeton University in New Jersey and a master’s in business administration from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joining Hanes in 1954 following two years in the U.S. Air Force, according to a 1978 New York Times profile.
Following his tenure as head of the Hanes hosiery division, he became president and CEO of Hanes Corp. in 1972 and president and chief operating officer of Sara Lee Corp. in 1983. From 1986 until his retirement in 1989 he was vice chairman of Sara Lee responsible for international operations.
His survivors include a daughter, Ann Lee, of Port Orchard, Washington; a son, Charlie Elberson, of Charlotte; and three grandchildren, according to Hankins & Whittington.
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