Cold, jiggly and colorless. In it’s rawest form it sort of looks like the part of chicken you avoid when eating wings. But with the right dyes and marketing, you can sell a billion boxes of it a year.
Jello is one of the brands/products we usually don’t spend too much time thinking about.
In the late 1800s gelatin (the base ingredient of Jello) was used by the best glue makers and was only eaten by the elite. Well, the elite and the people who were willing to scavenge bone pieces, boil them down and wait half a day for it to surface to the top.
Pearle Wait was a carpenter by day but curious businessman by night. He ran a side business packaging patented medicine and wanted to expand into packaging food. He knew there was something about this jiggly goo that everyone was going to love.
Isn’t it scarily beautiful when man gets possessed by an idea?
It’s when there is a long alluring gaze by the subject to the object. His imagination abandons the physicality that the common person sees. His mind decorates the object with his extra machinery, functionality or whatever other amendments he’s confirmed will now be necessary.
You probably grew up already associating Jello with a cool, refreshing, fun snack but it took a long, creative and frustrating process to get it that way.
They first tried to sell Jello by packaging in it with no dyes and no flavor. They figured the cook’s would want more room to innovate their own way of preparing it. Little they realize that sometimes people don’t like that much creative freedom.
They also thought that consumers would appreciate the convenience of it’s packaging and readiness to prepare. Remember, people at that time would usually wait twelve hours before they were able to enjoy the goo. This would be a big improvement.
But the Jello didn’t sell.
They added dyes and flavors to it but that still didn’t work.
Let’s take a moment out and really acknowledge what was going on. They had a product. They believed in it, but it wasn’t selling. They tried what they thought would work. They tried it for two years. They failed.
Pearle sold the trademark and everything else to a local businessman for $450. His name was Leroy Woodward and he was known for his exceptional selling skills. He already had a few “miracle” products on the market. But even he struggled with getting this gelatin to sell. He integrated a “guide book” with each box of a Jello purchase, hoping it would inspire more sales, but since nobody was buying the Jello, nobody was reading the guidebooks.
Example of a Jello pamphlet circa 1930
He got fed up and tried to sell it to one of his friends for $35. His friend wasn’t interested.
It was clear that everyone who invested in the gelatin saw that there was potential but they couldn’t figure out how to get the market to pick it up. The grip of the product reflected the grip of the market.
Consumers didn’t understand what the product really did. Merchants didn’t want to take the risk in stocking their stores with it.
It was back to the drawing board and Woodward had to get more creative with his approach. Him and his team decided to run a few ads, highlighting the product as a “The new dessert”. They emphasized how fancy it looked and how easy it was. After that, he equipped his salesmen with the same guide books he packaged them with.
Instead of selling them in the box with purchase, he decided to give the pamphlets for free.
With a confidence in this tactic, he’d then advise the salesmen to go over to the local merchants and inform them that people would be coming to their store for Jello, recommending they should purchase a wholesale order.
This campaign took off. In two years they did a million dollars in sales and Jello was beginning to live up to it’s name as “America’s favorite dessert”. Not only was the country adopting a new form of dessert, they also were adopting a new form of marketing.
Give people a free product to create a demand for a paid product.
It doesn’t sound like much today, but for the time, this was a big deal. Cultivating the early majority is all about equipping the early adopters with something that will make them feel pressure to try it first.
I’m sure the “cool moms”, with just enough of an experimental edge, didn’t want to be seen trying this “fancy dessert” too late. The pamphlet gave them an incentive to try the product and impress their friends and family.
This stimulates a tipping point, knocking the product into a more mainstream popularity.
This method is practiced so much today that it’s almost required to spike consumer interest. You see this with free samples at Costco and with people selling digital products who offer free things first to educate and excite you about what paid product they have in store for you.
We rarely take time to appreciate processes like how a product like Jello succeeded in the market, but when you do, you see how strategic and thoughtful the execution was.
As of last year, the Jello brand is still going strong, selling over a billion boxes of gelatin based products and housing more than 110 products under their name.