The Van Trump Report

JELL-O Story… From Rags to Riches!

On this day in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, NY was developing a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatine and came up with a mixed fruit-flavored dessert that his wife, May, named JELL-O. Wait and his wife, May, created strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon flavoring to mix with the granulated gelatin and sugar. Wait tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience to grow the business. In 1899 he sold the trademark to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.

The buyer of the business was a middle-school dropout named Frank Woodward. Sales at first were very slow and disheartening. In fact, historians say one day, in a gloomy mood, Woodward offered the entire JELL-O business to his manager for just $35, but the gentleman turned it down.

One year into a struggling business Woodward decided to go out and look for joint advertising opportunities. The JELL-O name was first used in association with the Genesee Pure Food Company, which promoted the fact it carried JELL-O on its shelves. The advertising campaign proved so successful that in 1902 JELL-O sales pushed to +$250,000!

From the beginning, JELL-O’s advertising included the distribution of recipes and samples. They started their major advertising campaign in 1904 with a three-inch ad in Ladies Home Journal that proclaimed JELL-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” That single add cost the company $336, which was a small fortune back then. Put it really worked to further kick-start the company. 

Shortly thereafter Woodward doubled-down on his marketing. They hired and sent out sharp-dressed salesmen to demonstrate how easy and tasteful JELL-O was. They also distributed 15 million copies of a “best seller” JELL-O recipe book containing celebrity favorites and art and illustrations by beloved American artists, including Maxfield Parrish, Rose O’Neill, Coles Phillips, Linn Ball, Angus MacDonald, and Norman Rockwell. All of these famous artists, illustrations,  and celebrity recipes helped make JELL-O a household name.

Woodward then introduced the JELL-O Girl, four-year-old Elizabeth King whose father, Franklin King, was an artist connected with the company. In her right hand the little girl held a teakettle and in her left a package of JELL-O. Essentially showing how easy it is to make and that the kids loved it. By 1906 JELL-O sales exceeded +$1 million!

Knowing that advertising and marketing was the key reason the company had grown, Woodward became one of the first to push into radio advertising when they partnered with local supermarkets and distributors nationwide and paid famous comedian and actor Jack Benny to host the JELL-O radio programs and commercials. 

The company’s marketing was also spot-on when it targeted stay-at-home moms in the 1920s to 1950s. Though much of the elaborate and dainty tea time fare served during this period was luxurious and decorative, using fancy ingredients like caviar or lobster, JELL-O became an affordable ornamental ingredient that women were able to use to create feminine, light, delicate dishes that were the standard of refined tea time during that period. The company’s leaders were also quick to shift their marketing when times changed. It was in the 1960s to 1990s that more and more women were entering the workforce and JELL-O was there to launch a campaign and recipes that gave busy moms a quick and healthy snack for the kids. Then the company found another huge hit when it created a marketing campaign around partying and the “JELL-O shots” that started to be served at bars and local home celebrations. Genius! 

Moral of the story, thinking-outside the box and being one of the first businesses to heavily pursue co-op advertising campaigns proved wildly successful. Co-op advertising is a strategy where product manufacturers or distributors pay a portion of advertising costs for a retailer to advertise their products. It creates a real win-win environment. Example: partner with a vodka brand to advertise JELL-O shots. Partner with a local grocery store chain to promote a JELL-O desert. The possibilities are endless.  

I should note, through the years The JELL-O company used its proceeds to leverage up and purchase several food businesses. It then merged with Postum Cereal, and eventually, that company would become the behemoth known as the General Foods Corporation, which is now called Kraft/Heinz/General Foods. 

As of 2012, LeRoy, New York, is known as the home of JELL-O and has the only JELL-O Museum in the world, located on the main road through the small town. JELL-O was manufactured here until General Foods closed the plant in 1964 and relocated manufacturing to Dover, Delaware. The JELL-O plant in Mason City, Iowa, produces America’s supply of ready-to-eat JELL-O gelatin dessert and pudding cups.

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