18 September 2009

[branding] Three Iconic Brand Names You Might Have Thought Were Fictional Characters, But Aren't

2211.Most people are by now well-familiar with the legend of Betty Crocker. The General Mills Corporation created her in the 1920s and nurtured and grew her through the years to become an iconic representation of an American housewife/homemaker – a gentle, caring, knowledgeable American everywoman, wife, and mother, the personification of the nurturing mother figure who also knew how to make some wicked great food.

I opine that this is neither good nor bad, but just the quintessential tool of marketing – the power of a brand. One look at Betty's face on a package and the buyer (which these days could be male as well as female and possibly in a familial lifestyle that the creators of Betty could hardly have forseen) knows they're buying a mix and a process that will, when followed to the letter, result in something comforting and good. Betty's done the hard work for you; you can trust her; thus, Betty ministers home-style comfort to all comers regardless of creed, color, sexual orientation, marital status, or any number of demographic variables.

Whoever you are, if you want to be brilliant in the kitchen on short notice, Betty has your back.

This is the power of a brand.

But knowing this, and combining it with the cynicism of the modern American shopper, it's tempting, I've found, to believe that every iconic name began with a brand calculation. It's not, of course, true, and to demonstrate, I've found three very interesting examples, which also have something to say about the power of a brand.

1. Famous Amos Cookies.

Wally Amos (b. 1939, Tallahassee FL, USA), was a USAF veteran who, in the 1980s, worked as an agent with the William Morris Agency. One of his signature ways to try to seal the deal was to bake and deliver boxes of his trademark chocolate-chip cookies to prospective clients. He excelled as an agent, representing Diana Ross as well as Simon & Garfunkel, but it was his cookies made history. Opening a store in Los Angeles in 1975 his cookies soon became so popular that expansion to supermarket shelves became a foregone conclusion.

The cookies traded on the ebullient and quirky personality of "Famous" Amos himself, with his picture appearing on the package of his cookies through the 1990s (subsequent to many changes of ownership) and, reportedly, again since 2000 or so. Wally Amos himself is known as a motivational speaker and writer. He promotes happiness in life, which is appropriate, since only the most hard-hearted amongst us can't be cheered up at least just a little by an excellent cookie.

2. Marie Callender

When Don Callender (1928-2009) began a pie wholesale business in Long Beach California, he named his concern after his mother, Marie. While the company history, which traces the company's founding to the notional pie-making and delivery business started by his mother Marie is somewhat at odds with the independent researchers at Wikipedia who note the founding story's strong similarity to the 1941 movie Mildred Pierce, sentimentally, it matters not much, because the story it calls forth is one of sentimental American values and the damn good pies and home made food Mom always made.

Marie Callender's, which started in California in 1948 and has spread across the US west with 130 locations at last count, has made its success with a reliance on those signature pies as well as good, standard American restaurant fare.

3. Duncan Hines

I saved the best for last, because this is the story that really impresses me the most. I assumed that, given its middle-American sound and feel, Duncan Hines was another creation similar to Betty Crocker. Not true. As a matter of fact, Duncan Hines (b. Bowling Green, KY, 1880-1959) was the seminal American travel-guide writer. Every Mobil guide you crack open owes its debt to him.

In the 1930s, Duncan Hines was a Chicago-based traveling print salesman. This was before a dependable national road network existed – the network was there, but it was still growing. As long as you stayed close to the cities, you knew you were going to find adequate food, but when you went out into the hinterlands, you were on your own, pretty much.

In the mid 1930s, Hines and his wife began compiling a list of notes of the restaurants they'd visited and the experiences they'd had. In 1935 this as published as a paperback, Adventures in Good Eating, that highlighted the best. It became sort of the American version of the Michelin guide, it spread far and wide with success; the book was apparently updated yearly, and if any listed restaurant was heard of as slipping below standards, it was dropped. Eventually, designated restaurants were allowed to display a "Recommended by Duncan Hines" sign, trading on the trustworthiness of Duncan Hines's book to generate steady and repeat business – also, presumably, explaining why earlier versions of the Duncan Hines logo appeared to resemble a colonial-design signboard (also, presumably, influenced by the gracious colonial style popular in bluegrass country).

In the 1950s, Hines began licensing his name to food manufacturers. The rights to the brand eventually passed to Nebraska Consolidated Mills, the company who for years produced and marketed Duncan Hines bake mixes. The brand currently is under the Pinnacle Foods umbrella, and Bowling Green, KY, has a highway named in his honor.

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