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The Wrigley’s Story – Innovation Lessons From a Chewing Gum

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Wrigley's Chewing Gum - Marketing and Innovation
The Wrigley’s Story – Photo by Ben Bateson on Unsplash

Success. Some attribute it to luck. Some to hard-work. And, some to risk. The story of Wrigley’s teaches us that it might be a mixture of three. Let’s go. 

Look Sideways. Always

We often look for inspiration far ahead but it’s happening all around us. If we’re paying attention, we can see a lot of things happen by the side. 

William Wrigley was always looking. Looking sideways. 

Wrigley as a Soap

In 1891, a 29-year old William Wrigley Jr. came to Chicago with the idea of Wrigley’s Scouring Soap. Soaps were not happenstance. His father ran a soap company where the young Wrigley went sideways from stirring vats of soaps to becoming a salesman, where he found his niche.

The soap had low-profit margins and Wrigley’s added a lot of freebies to make it attractive to the merchants. His sales took off but he observed something interesting.

Wrigley’s as Baking Powder

One of the freebies he offered was Baking Powder. The rise of baking in the mid-19th century meant that Wrigley’s somehow found himself in the midst of this revolution.

So how did Baking Powder lead to chewing gum? Let’s trace that.

Origins of the Modern-day Chewing Gum

The first commercial gums were made in 1848, by John B. Curtis, called State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, made out of the resin of Spruce trees. Curtis, soon, moved to chewing gums made out of Paraffin wax due to the brittle texture of Spruce resin.

Commercialisation

However, it was not until 1869 that the Chewing gum industry took off commercially when Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the 8th president of Mexico wanted to fund his return to the presidency.

Let’s take a slight detour over here to focus on Santa Anna.

Being out of power for more than a decade Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was desperately looking for his way back. In 1866, he received an invite from the U.S government stating a bid to overthrow the Mexican monarch. Santa Anna swiftly packed his bags and left to New York only to realize that he was conned by a fake letter. 

Hoping on Chicle

Having spent a fortune on travel, his finances were tight but his hopes were high. He had brought a consignment of Chicle, a milky latex of the Sapodilla tree, that could be added to rubber and make it cheaper. Santa Anna planned to find an inventor in the U.S and monetize this.

Santa Anna met Thomas Adams and both agreed to work with Chicle. Adams spent a year making automobile tires, toys, and rain boots but failed commercially. Santa Anna left and Adams was left with a big batch of Chicle.

The Idea – Looking Sideways, again

Sometime later, at a local drugstore, Adams overheard a girl asking for a paraffin wax chewing gum. Adams knew that Chicle was a better gum base than paraffin wax. He had seen Santa Anna enjoy chewing it. By the 1870s, he had started selling his invention to many stores and was not able to keep up with the demand. To keep up with the demand, he made a chewing gum manufacturing machine and went on to patent it in 1871. 

The Chewing Gum Leader

By the next decade and a half, Adams’ was ruling the chewing gum industry. In 1875, he launched a licorice-flavored gum called as the Black Jack. Black Jack was the first brand to be offered in sticks. Another milestone was in 1888 with the famous Tutti-Frutti, the first gum to be sold in a vending machine. Would you be surprised if I told you that this machine was the first commercial vending machine ever that could dispense a food item?

Innovation always sets off a chain reaction. One thing causes another and before we realise the vending machines we take for granted were a result of a commercial and edible resin.

In 1899, Adams merged six largest chewing gum manufacturers and created a monopoly with the American Chicle Company. Remember Chiclets? Now you know where that comes from too.

Back to Wrigley’s

Remember Wrigley’s selling baking powder and how the idea came via soaps? Similarly, he now started offering two packs of chewing gum with each pack of baking powder.

Take a guess. Yes. Chewing gum became more popular than the baking powder!

Wrigley’s Chewing Gum

In 1892, Wrigley’s launched with two gum brands — Wrigley’s Spearmint and Juicy Fruit. He focused on a younger demographic to sell his gums.

Tapping Impulse

Observing as ever, Wrigley’s noted that chewing gums are an impulse purchase and went on to pioneer the ‘besides the checkout counter’ placements.

Opportunity in Darkness

The Bankers’ Panic of 1907 caused America to enter into a financial crisis. While everyone took a hit, chewing gums, being an impulsive purchase were being cut from buyer’s baskets. Everyone started cutting costs and survival trumped growth. Wrigleys sensed an opportunity.

He mortgaged everything he had and more to buy $2,50,000 worth of advertising. The competitors were caught off-guard by this flamboyant move and Wrigley’s sky-rocketed to become a national name. Within three years, the company went from $ 1,70,000 of sales to more than $3 million.

He bought out Zeno, which was manufacturing the chewing gum then and went on a never-seen-before marketing blitzkrieg. Wrigley’s became an aspirational, young product.

From Impulse to Regular

The 1907 crisis had taught Wrigley that being an impulse product is not a long-term strategy. Now that the entire country knew about Wrigley’s, the question he often asked was:

How could Wrigley’s be shifted from impulse purchase to a regular one?

From being perceived as an impulse product that tastes great and feels fresh, he shifted its communication to health benefits and the feeling it gives.

Ads in the 1910s focused on an after-meal product that helps in cleaning teeth, soothing throat, relieving the over-eating feeling and more. It encouraged people to ‘buy it by the box‘ and even stop denying it to children.

Pioneers of Direct Marketing

In 1915, Wrigley had an insight: If someone could afford a telephone, they could definitely afford a pack of chewing gum. Nimble as ever, he mailed a pack of Wrigley’s to every home listed on the U.S telephone directory. 1.5 million homes!

He even sent extra packs on children’s birthdays. As the directory grew, so did his mailing list. By 1919, he had mailed Wrigley’s to about 7 million homes.

Wrigley’s became a public company in 1919.

In 1920, when a magazine asked him the secret of his advertising, he said: “Tell ’em quick and tell ’em often.” Simple.

Connecting with Sports

In 1921, Wrigley’s fully acquired the Chicago Cubs and went on to make an indelible impression in the world of sports broadcasting. It was 1925, when he became the first team owner to broadcast all the Cubs seasons on radio, widely considered as a foolish move, for free. Attendance skyrocketed.

Wrigey’s at War Source

Wrigley’s and War

We’ve already seen how Wrigley was a master opportunist. War provided another opportunity to showcase his ingenuity. During the war, he focused on the health benefits of Wrigley’s and associated it with men-at-war.

He positioned Wrigley’s like a product that helped soldiers allay thirst and steady nerves.

Along with cigarettes and candy, Wrigley’s was a must-have for soldiers protecting their countries.

In fact, during World War II when gum could not be supplied to the civilians, the company ran an extravagant campaign with hoardings stating:

Wrigley's remember this wrapper
Remember this wrapper

Wrigley appeared on the TIME magazine in 1929 and passed away in 1932, but not without teaching us how to market and innovate.

Keep looking and Tell ’em quick and tell ’em often!


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