Time Tested Brands
A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 2 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959
It never ceases to amaze me how many brands that began in another time in America are still intact with relatively few changes. Belief in brand graphic symbology and associations is unbending. No one wants to mess with brand DNA for fear consumers will get confused or annoyed or attracted to a competitor.
First, a comment on the book’s title circa 1959. When is the last time you heard anyone use the term Advertisement? Did it disappear when print buys began drying up in favor of online options? As the industry keeps changing, the word digital seems to precede a great many things, including advertising. As a purist, I am even troubled by the pay-per-click phraseology of Google Adwords. I’m sorry but a text link may be a form of paid media but it is so far from a great ad that it is itself a horrible bastardization.
Other forms of advertising change are even more dramatic. There is no date on the following ad for Cream of Wheat, but it is clearly of another time. Seeing it through the present prism of 2013 when we have a re-elected African-American President in the White House, and after a racially incendiary film like Django has been an Oscar Best Picture Nominee, it is surprising to encounter an Uncle Remus type figure proudly beaming at an outdoor board featuring the Cream of Wheat chef and proclaiming “Ah Reckon As How He’s De Bes’ Known Man in De Worl.” These kind of “statements” and “snapshots” of their time tend to make a lot of people in the present uncomfortable.
The real story behind the Cream of Wheat chef, according to Julian Lewis Watkins’ account, is its own testament to racial progress. The enduring image began when Colonel Mapes, one of the founders of the company, was having lunch at Kohlsaat’s Restaurant in Chicago in the early 1900s. His waiter was a handsome man with a winning smile. Mapes asked this anonymous man to be the face of the Cream of Wheat hot cereal brand. By the time the ad ran, this gentleman’s visage had become famous and had sold a lot of cereal. By 1959, when the ad was featured in this volume, he had become of the top three or four best-known trademarks in advertising. Ironically, just about every year in between, the company had been approached by various gentlemen who said they were the original chef. Colonel Mapes was able to disqualify all of them as fakes; ironically, the original model must have preferred anonymity, because by 1959 and the publication date, he had not contacted the company. According to Wikipedia, a chef named Frank L. White who died in 1938, claimed to be the original model. Wikipedia also notes that the chef character on the original packaging was given the name Rastus. Sounds like a bad minstrel show sketch. Remarkably, in 2013, the “bes’ known man in de worl” is still incredibly well known because his welcoming smile continues to grace all of Cream of Wheat’s modern packaging.
A recently revived brand icon is Borden’s Elsie the Cow. This article explains the current CEO’s plan to tap into all that equity. I was surprised to learn through the “100 Greatest Advertisements” that Elsie has only been around since the 1930s. Even more surprising is that she began life in a trade ad campaign for Eagle Brand condensed milk and other Borden dairy products featured in medical journals. The ads were such a hit with doctors that proofs were posted to office walls. As Elsie’s popularity grew, she went from B2B to consumer, first with small newspaper ads, then radio spots, then a World’s Fair appearance, and finally in 1939, four-color national magazine ads. Elsie became so popular she even finds herself competing against other cows, which is no laughing matter.
The other brand sagas are tame by comparison. Local (Camden, NJ) food giant Campbell’s has been using kids (and later twins) to market soup since they appeared on car cards in 1899. This particular Saturday Evening Post ad is from 1935. The current Campbell’s web site and soup packaging seems to have gotten away from the vintage illustration approach. However, the twins are featured prominently on this Campbell’s blog.
The Smith Brothers (Trade and Mark) are also of that vintage era, predating Campbell’s kids by 47 years (1852 was first appearance in a “Cough Candy” ad that ran in Poughkeepsie newspapers. The founding members of the ZZTop fan club can still be found on cough drop product packaging as evidenced on the current web site.
Another of the most iconic brand marks of all time is the infamous fox terrier listening intently through the Victor Talking Machine to “his master’s voice.” He began life as the real life dog (Nipper) of the painter Francis Barraud, who noticed his pet hunched over the horn. A star was born. Take note that the ad featured here listed the address of the Victor Talking Machine Co. as the Stephen Girard Bld., Philadelphia. A visit to today’s RCA web site shows not one fox terrier, but two. Does that count as a brand extension?