As someone who deals with businesses (big and small) on a daily basis, you would be surprised at how many people ask, “Does advertising really work?” What’s even more interesting is that most of them say this to me as if the business I have invested my life in is some form of a bizarre ancient healing technique like bloodletting, ingesting mercury pills, or the good ol’ Babylonian Skull Cure. Don’t know what the good ol’ Babylonian Skull Cure is? Well, let’s just say that it includes sleeping next to a human skull, which you are then instructed to lick and kiss seven times each night. Sound strange? Well, now you fully understand the tone of voice some people use when they ask me about advertising.
The truth is, advertising is not some business remedy firmly rooted in urban legend. When done correctly, it is a time-tested, proven commodity that turns even the biggest failures into successes. There are many examples of the success of advertising, but one of my all-time favorites is the success story of “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” J-E-L-L-OOOOOOO! If you didn’t just sing the Jell-O jingle then you obviously aren’t a child of the early 90’s…
The Jell-O success story is one that is the rooted in new, creative, and never before employed advertising and merchandising methods. It is a story that not only changed the way we eat dessert, but one that I am sure will change the way you look at investing in advertising.
Our story begins in 1897 in the town of LeRoy, New York, where a carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer named Pearle Bixby Wait was creating a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. Isn’t that the way all great business ventures start? With a big mug of laxative tea… Anyways, while experimenting with gelatin, Wait came up with a fruit flavored dessert (strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon), which his wife, May, named Jell-O.
Like many businesses today, Wait realized he had a great idea on his hands, but his lack of capital experience seemingly doomed Jell-O to be the greatest idea that no one outside of LeRoy, New York had heard of. Instead of seeking advertising and marketing expertise to aide his budding product, Wait gave up on Jell-O and in 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman, Orator Frank Woodward, whose Genesee Pure Food Company produced the successful Grain-O health drink (evidently all food products in the late 1800’s ended in “-O”), for the sum of $450 (about $12,000 today).
Just to put this all in perspective, what Orator Woodward bought for $450 in 1899 grossed $932.5 million in its peak year of 2009. Some would look at that and say, “Lucky guy.” Others would say, “Smart business man.” Well, I have always been taught that luck is preparation that meets opportunity. So, to those who said, “Smart business man,” you are the winner, winner. Go buy yourself a chicken dinner.
You see, where Wait’s story ends, Jell-O’s story truly begins. Already a successful packaged food businessman, Woodward knew how to sell a product, and he thought selling Jell-O would be no different than any other food. So, he dressed armies of well-trained, well-groomed salesmen in fancy suits and had them offer free samples to homemakers. They employed every trick in the book to get grocers to stock their shelves with boxes of Jell-O. Despite all of this, Jell-O sales did not take off the way Woodward had planned, and as is the case for many businesses today, Woodward became frustrated. He knew that he was selling a great product, but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t selling. In fact, Woodward grew so frustrated, that on one gloomy morning, he offered to sell the entire Jell-O product line to the Jell-O manufacturing supervisor Sam Nico for a mere $35. Luckily, for Woodward, Nico refused the offer.
So, determined to find answers to his ever-growing Jell-O problem, Woodward decided to take some of the money he earned from the more successful products he made, including one that held a “miraculous power to kill lice on hens,” and with it he hired the help of William E. Humelbaugh and the advertising agency Dauchy & Company. The advertising partners didn’t take long to fix Woodward’s long-standing Jell-O problem for good. In 1904, they created ads for Jell-O in the national syndicated Ladies Home Journal.
The three-inch ads, costing $336 each, featured a “smiling, fashionably coifed women in white aprons proclaiming Jell-O to be ‘America's Most Famous Dessert.’” Ever so slightly beating out other American classics like Pineapple Upside-Down SPAM Cake and Ham and Bananas Hollandaise… The ads were a rousing success. Annual sales quickly jumped to $250,000 an increase of 55,456% or $249,550 (about a $6 million increase today)! Soon, beautiful hand drawn pictures showing pantries stuffed to the brim with Jell-O and kids begging for the delicious dessert were marketing the product everywhere.
If those statistics still aren’t enough to convince you that advertising has been producing major benefits for years. Phase two of Humelbaugh and Dauchy & Company’s plan sent Jell-O from a minor success to an overwhelming, unprecedented success. In 1904, the Dauchy & Company sent the armies of salesmen back out. This time, they arrived in eloquent “rigs, drawn by beautiful horses" and they ventured into the roads, byroads, fairs, country gatherings, church socials, and parties of the common American. There they had them distribute free Jell-O cookbooks telling homemakers how to properly prepare their Jell-O, a pioneering marketing tactic. In some years as many as 15 million booklets were distribute, and noted artists such as Rose O'Neill, Maxfield Parrish, Coles Phillips, Norman Rockwell, Linn Ball, and Angus MacDonald made Jell-O a household word with their colored illustrations.
Still, Humelbaugh and Dauchy & Company weren’t done. They handed out free Jell-O molds to immigrants arriving into Ellis Island. They introduced Jell-O girl, played by four-year-old Elizabeth King – the daughter of a brilliant Dauchy & Company ad artist, Franklin King. With a tea kettle in one hand and a packet of Jell-O in the other, she declared to the world that, “You can’t be a kid without it.” Pictures, posters, and billboards went up all over the American landscape, as well as page ads in magazines, which carried the Jell-O Girl and the six delicious flavors into the American home.
Celebrity testimonials followed with recipes appearing in advertisements featuring actress Ethel Barrymore and opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Some Jell-O illustrated advertisements were even painted by renowned American painter Maxfield Parrish.
These great advertising successes afforded the Jell-O brand to continue to grow and try new things, like three new flavors, chocolate (discontinued in 1927), cherry, and peach, and they launched the brand in Canada.
In 1924, understanding the power of a name, the Genesee Pure Foods Company became, quite simply, the Jell-O Company. That same year, the company hired the soon-to-be-famous Norman Rockwell to draw colorful illustrations depicting Jell-O. He did just that, depicting a young girl serving a Jell-O to her doll at tea time.
Succeeding years saw many changes for the Jell-O brand, changing from a hand-packaged business to a highly mechanized factory, being sold to Postum Cereal Company (eventually known as General Foods Corporation), and even changing advertising agencies to Young & Rubicam. Still, due to its brilliant marketing, Jell-O remains a testament to the benefits of employing the help of an advertising agency, as it has embedded itself as one of the most well-known brands in American history.
So, does advertising really work? Well, advertising got us all to consider the boiled skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of cows and pigs (yes, that’s really what gelatin is made from) as one of our favorite desserts. So, does it work? You tell me.