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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 5 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

Had lunch with Ted Regan again Friday, this time to return his generously loaned books on Ayer and on the 100 Greatest Advertisements. Next time we get together, I’m bringing my notepad and planning to grill him on his days pitching, winning, and retaining the U.S. Army account. He has shared lots of tantalizing details, but it is an amazing and important story that deserves a full treatment.

I told Ted I was good for one more blog post  in the 100 Greatest Advertisements series and that it was going to be about packaging and retail. There were two examples in particular that sparked some sharp contrasts. And not surprisingly, one of them is another Ayer story.

For everyone who has eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, did you know the origins of the name? That country stores and early groceries, at turn of the century (pre-FDA) America, used to sell crackers, as well as just about every other item, out of wooden barrels or open boxes? A.W. Green, Chairman of the Board of the National Biscuit Company, is credited with pushing for a concept that was likely the forerunner of the packaged food business in the United States — selling branded crackers in neat, sanitary, exact quantity packages. Crackers that would always be clean and fresh and protected from moisture, dust, germs, odors, and whatever else that could find its way into an open barrel. Incredibly, Green’s board did not share his vision, did not want to disturb grocers or their barrels, thought the idea would fail, and did not get behind it.



Fortunately, one of N.W. Ayer’s top execs, H.N. McKinney, saw Green’s vision and raised it with a brand, a plan, and a campaign to entice the public via newspaper and magazine ads, streetcar cards, and posters/signage. And so, UNEEDA Biscuits in boxes were born and promoted by a little boy in a rain slicker (the art director’s nephew).  U-Need-A-Biscuit may be a corny name, but it worked. All of it worked. Together (integrated marketing communications anyone?). It all worked so well that National Biscuit had to build additional bakeries in different parts of the country in order to supply the huge demand that the Ayer campaign and the Green packaging concept created. You can bet that a lot of copycat packaging followed on and that little by little groceries and retail stores, and packaged goods companies, scrambled to entice customers with bright packaging, from folding cartons, to tins, to labeled bottles, cans, and tubes.

The irony is that today, the drive is in the other direction, toward less packaging and a more sustainable future. There are a lot of positive stories, but also mindless zealotry. Packagers keep trying to source reduce to lowest possible but sometimes absurd levels. I’ve had water bottles spring leaks because they have been rendered so weak and flimsy. I have found toilet paper now being marketed as eco-friendly because the cardboard roll in the middle is gone. Many landfills are at a point where they are actually looking for more trash in order to feed trash-to-energy projects.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The drive is also in the other direction on many retail fronts. I was struck by a couple of things on this page from the 100 Greatest Advertisements, which featured the cover of the Spring/Summer 1949 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog (where have all the Roebucks gone?). First, the cover didn’t obviously feature merchandise, unless worn by kids and teacher in the classroom setting depicted. Second, in that classroom setting, circa 1949, the emphasis was on Safety with a capital S.  There is a never-ending quest these days to make this the safest of all possible worlds (and that’s a blog for another day), but few people associate 1949 as a safety-focused year. Third, Sears’ message on the front cover talks candidly about higher prices being the norm, then casually delivers good news that many prices inside are lower than the prior fall.  Finally, the catalog came by way of Roosevelt Boulevard (I can still picture one of the Great Northeast’s classic landmarks).

Just as video killed the radio star, e-commerce has been making life very difficult in the retail bricks and mortar world. Sears is still there (but with a lot fewer stores), as are Macy’s, J C Penney’s, WalMart, and a host of others, especially individual specialty stores. While Amazon seems to be online’s 800 lb gorilla, the most successful retailers today are those who successfully bridge physical stores, great shopping experience web sites, and well-targeted catalogs. Know thy customers and reward their loyalty with many options, stellar customer service, and promos, discounts, and freebies. No one said marketing, sales, and advertising are easy.

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52 posts in 52 weeks makes for a minor milestone (or a good excuse for a game of 52-card pickup).  But we’re proud to report that has reached the one-year mark.  In honor of the occasion, here are a few varied mini-stories of interest. Some even have something to do with marketing.

Even in the Wright Brothers era, advertising was helping to build business ventures.

Even in the Wright Brothers era, advertising was helping to build business ventures.

Advertising has long been the wind beneath business’s wings.

Spending President’s Day weekend in DC was refreshing for a lot of reasons. One was seeing this Wright Brothers era display from the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. A long time before Burma Shave ever hit the highways, the medium of outdoor advertising was practiced in some pretty creative ways on some remarkable canvases.

Two other reasons were the guided tour of the Capitol (the building itself gives you goosebumps, the prelude film is magnificent, first-rate audio headsets for all, and our tour guide was a polished gem eager to share information, as well as a very energetic senior who is living proof that retirement is overrated) and a cabdriver from Ghana who was this week’s embodiment of the American Dream. He has been driving a DC cab for five years to put himself through Howard University. He is currently studying five hours a day to take the CPA exam.

Back to earth courtesy of the current Congress.

This story from the Washington Post will tell you all you need to know about what happens when the second oldest profession takes on the oldest profession. Upon first seeing the headline about Harry Reid challenging prostitution, which is currently legalized in his home state of Nevada, I was perplexed. The explanations and the instant poll here are revealing of motives and politics (prostitution) as usual.

Softer side, my a@#.

Nothing agitates agencies more than having to do spec work to win business. Unless it is being told by the prospect that they will own your ideas even if you aren’t named agency of record and you won’t be compensated for them. According to Advertising Age, that is what Sears is doing in its current search and why many shops are fighting mad and turning down the opportunity. Interesting business model. I suggest shoplifters come armed with a copy of this story to discuss with Sears store security and ask why they aren’t entitled to something valuable for nothing as well.

Coupled with this news about Wal-Mart and you begin to wonder if there are any intelligent, common sense-oriented adults left in retail management. Two key takeaways from the Wal-Mart story: “Wal-Mart still is suffering a hangover from its overly aggressive effort last year to broaden its base of customers to include more affluent shoppers” AND “Wal-Mart this year has opted to return its marketing and its merchandise to a focus on its roots: low prices on everyday items.” Sam Walton must be spinning in his grave like a gyroscope.

The difference between PR and news.

A LinkedIn group I belong to has had a spirited discussion going this week on “pay for play” PR placements, and whether as a book author has suggested, it is the future model for public relations.  I don’t see it that way, but then a friend independently sent me this link, which amusingly approaches PR from the other direction — from the consumers of news side. Journalism vs. Churnalism. Are editors getting ever lazier and running press releases verbatim? Now, you can test the story you’re reading via this cheeky site. I am convinced we are all being put through a digital blender these days, for better and for worse. And for constant change and status quo challenges. It’s been an interesting first year of agency blogging. Looking forward to many more.

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