Welcome to Will It Stick? podcast, where hosts Melissa and Alexis cover creative advertising campaigns, PR stunts, and marketing activations that brands of all shapes and sizes pull, and dive into the research and data to understand if it worked and of course … Will It Stick?
Do you know anything about the story of how the Gerber Baby search happened? This PR stunt is definitely one of the OGs.
It starts in 1928 with a company that was at the time called the Fremont Canning Company. At that time, Dan Gerber was working for his father’s canning company in Michigan and had worked his way up to assistant general manager. He was married and he and his wife, Dororthy struggled big time with their new baby Sally who was very unhealthy. Their doctor suggested that they start feeding the baby strained foods. Dorothy, who was clearly a badass boss babe, suggested that her hubby persuade his father to start making and selling strained baby foods at the Fremont Canning Company.
Actually, I’d be lying if I said it was really THAT easy. The real story goes that for months, Dororthy prepared her own baby food at home to follow the doctors order, by peeling, steaming, scraping and straining – and eventually she was like THIS IS CRAZY. My husbands family owns a LITERAL canning factory and I’m here doing this shit? She didn’t know a ton about his job, but she figured if Fremont Canning Company could make tomato puree for adults in cans, why not pureed food for infants??
At first, Dan kind of blew it off. But then one day, Dan was home watching Dorothy on the struggle bus attempting to force peas through a strainer and there were peas flying all over the kitchen. He realized it was time to give her idea serious consideration. Typical 🙂
Dan brought the idea to his dad, and he was on board. The first thing they did was prepare test packs for Dan’s baby girl… and suddenly many of the employees of the cannery were asking about it for their babies.
Dan and his father did a ton of research into this new line of business and really, this concept was relatively new at the time. The only way you could get strained baby foods at that time was at a pharmacy and you had to have a prescription for it and it cost about 35 cents a can. That was a ton then…. That would be $5.64 today, for one can. Dan and his dad wanted to cut that price in half, to make strained baby food affordable for almost everyone.
They contacted nutritional experts to make sure they got it right and they tested the products through giving out tons of samples and doing all kinds of market research. They wanted to make sure they got it RIGHT. You can’t be too careful when it comes to babies.
When they launched, they started with strained pease and four other strained foods, specifically prepared for babies. But when it came to marketing, they knew they had to do something to stand out and build trust for its brand, because it was going to be tricky to break through the long-held American traditional that babies were only given a 100% liquid diet until they were a full year old… they were concerned that moms wouldn’t buy it because they might be afraid to try something new.
So Dan decided to make a bold move and spend some big money in a super strategic advertising campaign to launch the baby food: he bought spots in Good Housekeeping, Parents Magazine and a few others and he set out on a task to convince parents to adopt this new feeding concept and he used his personal story… how he was trying this himself with his sick daughter Sally. Kind of a pull-at-the-hearstrings, parent-to-parents message.
But before the ads ran, he realized the brand and the packaging was still missing SOMETHING. He needed to really capture the attention of moms, he needed them to know that this new baby food was the perfect healthy new option for THEIR child. So Dan had an idea…or so its reported that it was Dan’s idea, any bets it was actually his genius wife??!!
So, he launched a contest. That contest was a call for a baby face that would best represent the new baby food. The company put out a call to artists, asking them to submit entries to feature on the label of their new product: baby food. They quickly received submissions, some were fancy oil paintings and others were sketches. They ended up choosing what appeared to be an unfinished charcoal sketch as the winner.
The winning artist was Dorothy Hope Smith. Dorothy was the neighbor of a woman named Leslie Turner who had a cute baby girl named Ann Turner Cook. They all lived in Westport, Connecticut at the time. Ann was born in 1926 so she was 2 at the time that contest began, but Dorthoy had sketched that Ann when she was just 4 months old. That was the sketch she mailed in to the contest.
The first ads that ran launching the baby food and the Gerber Baby also featured a coupon offering mothers six cans of the new baby food for one dollar. Just days after the first ad appeared, dollar bills literally began pouring into the Fremont Canning Company.
Within six months, the baby food was on store shelve in most major markets in the United States. His dad was SHOCKED when the after the first year, gross sales of the new baby food were $345,000. Do you know how much that would equate to today? $5,624,952.63.
And because sales were doing SO well, even the Great Depression which happened right after the launch of Gerber Baby Food didn’t slow the brand’s growth. It expanded its baby food lines during the 1930s, and suddenly by 1941 the Fremont Canning Company was selling more baby food than adult food and Gerber and his father officially changed the name to Gerber Products Company and sold the product worldwide.
The Gerber Baby logo was trademarked in 1931 and the original sketch sits safely at their corporate headquarters still today. It has become the essence of who Gerber is as a company. One Gerber exec was quoted saying “It is the epitome of a happy, healthy baby and the symbol of trust we have with parents. It’s everything to our company.”
Actually, in 1938 Gerber hired 10-year old Sally Gerber, the sick baby who was the inspo for the food, to answer every letter that customers wrote in! She did this for YEARS and eventually ended up becoming SVP for Gerber when she was older. SUCH a smart tactic….they basically illustrated that Sally was healthy and happy since starting on Gerber Baby Food as a young child.
And as I mentioned at the top of the episode, Gerber kept the identity of the real Gerber Baby a secret for 40 years. During that time, the public would often guess who the Gerber Baby is and this caused a ton of organic conversation about the brand. A poll was taken across the United States that got people really talking….some speculated that it was actor Humphrey Bogart, and some thought it might be senator Bob Dole. Others thought actress Elizabeth Taylor was the big-eyed babe or a young Jane Seymour. This caused even more insane brand awareness for Gerber.
There was a very specific reason that Gerber never identified the baby’s identity because if the baby was identified as a girl or a boy, they felt they would alienate half the population. They wanted every mom to see the Gerber Baby a their child, so it was to remain genderless.
The actual Gerber Baby, Ann Cook, knew she was the iconic baby on the jars since she was about 3, but she just kept it to herself. She lived a totally normal life…she got married, she became a teacher. But in the 1951 when she was in her 20s, almost 30 she was compensated from Gerber for the very first time – because another person came forward claimnig to be the Gerber Baby. She never received royalties (whichi would have made her insanely rich), but she earned about $5,000 and she was able to buy her first car and to make a downpayment on her first very modest home…which she said was amazing. She and her husband were barely making ends meet prior to that.
Gerber finally revealed her identity in 1978.
Fun fact, she went on to become a novelist and wrote mysteries. She admitted that when she did use the Gerber Baby notoriety when anouoncing new books and doing signings because she would sell 10X more and everyone was intrigued. She was smart! Ann had a great, long life and died just THIS year in 2022 at the age of 95. When she passed away there were thousands of articles chronicling her life as the Gerber Baby. Which was so cool for her family, but also was a huge benefit to the Gerber brand.
In 2010, Gerber marketing execs saw an opportunity to reignite a new search for The Gerber Baby. This time, the baby wouldn’t replace the iconic sketched face on the packages, but would instead become an annual search for The Gerber Generation, a new marketing campaign. The winner of this first year’s search would earn $25,000 and would be featured in the brand’s advertising. Eventually, a toddler named Mercy Townsend was chosen. As of today in 2022, there has been a search for a new Gerber Baby every year and the prizes have varied, from $25k to $50K, from scholarships to cash. In 2018, Gerber made internaitonal headlines again for selecting the first Gerber Baby with Down Synrome. In 2020, it selected its first adopted baby, and this year in 2022, a cutie named Isa Slish was selected as the first baby to have a limb difference…she was born without a femur or a fibula in her right leg… she earned $25K and Gerber matched the prize with another $25K donation to the March of Dimes.
In case some of you listeners are thinking that your baby could be the next Gerber Baby, here’s the job requirements: Gerber looks for newborns through children up to age 4 with a playful smile that can light up a room. Parents are asked to share pictures and videos of their little ones smiling and giggling. Job responsibilities include: eating tasty baby food products, serving as the adorable face of the company and appearing on Gerber’s social media platforms and in marketing campaigns throughout the year. No corporate experience is required for the position of “Chief Growing Officer” and 2022 Gerber Spokesbaby, but they must come with a “belly full of giggles,” have a passion for being the center of attention and demonstrate “an irresistibly fun and expressive personality.”
Lex, what’s really brilliant about this campaign? Gerber turns the contestant each year into a brand advocate, and through the entries they gather so much personal information that is used for future marketing proposed, product launches and more. They also create this level of virality through this campaign annual that builds cohesion and excitement in the parent community. Every single year when Gerber announces its annual search, every major media outlet covers this campaign! Both when the search is announced and then when the winner is selected.
In 2007, Gerber was sold to Nestlé for $5.5 billion.Today, Gerber is recognized as the world’s largest baby food manufacturer with sales exceed one billion dollars and is also one of the most trusted brands in the world. The original line of 5 products created by Dan Gerber has grown to over 220 products, plus of course over 300 baby care items that Gerber now sells, too.
The Gerber Website: https://www.gerber.com/meet-the-gerber-baby