Branding and Consistency: Lessons From Morton Salt

Great brands come and go, and over decades many of the strongest brands in the world have fallen into obscurity and been forgotten, shrouded in the mists of time and long absent from store shelves and our consumer consciousness. Developing a brand is pretty simple; a company invents a name, a symbol and, sometimes, a phrase that they hope customers will come to strongly associate with their product or service. That’s it. It is maintaining the brand over time that is among the greatest business challenges, and time is the enemy of most brands, large and small. Fewer and fewer among us had that wonderful experience of shopping at F.W. Woolworth. Which of us had a checking account at Chemical Bank? And how many still remember filling up the Rambler at the corner Esso station.

Some great brands do stick around, though. They rely on consistency, a great product, proven and constant need in the marketplace, and the deep connections we develop through emotional links with a product or company. There are many examples of these brands; this morning, I was reminded of one while making breakfast for my son. The salt shaker was empty, so I reached in the cabinet and what did I find? Old reliable. The simple blue canister of Morton Salt. The girl with the umbrella. The clever and memorable tagline. Indeed.  Morton Salt is one of the greatest brands of the past 150 years for a simple reason: when we think salt, we think Morton.

I wish I had more time to cook; I love working in the kitchen, I love the tools and gadgets, I love measuring the ingredients, I love that intersection of creativity and exacting proportions, and I love eating. Like many cooks, I keep all sorts of ingredients – spices, condiments, oils, and other staples – in my cabinets. I kid you not, there are at least 5 or 6 types of salt in my cupboard at any given time: sea salts (coarse and fine), kosher salt, infused salts, and flavored salts. Which one I reach for is a function of what I am cooking, but I can remember the name only one brand of salt on that shelf: Morton. When you think about it for a minute that is quite extraordinary. Turning a basic commodity into a memorable brand is a feat of marketing and art that happens rarely in business and Morton Salt is an archetype in our culture – as memorable a brand as any in the world. The first measure of success for any brand is how well people remember it. If they don’t think of your brand immediately, or recognize your packaging on the shelf, you’re sunk.

The history of this brand is rich and fascinating. In 1889 a man by the name of Joy Morton bought a Chicago-based business, Richmond and Company, which was a sales agent and distributor of, among other things, salt. The development of a unique manufacturing process and innovative packaging were critical to the company’s success – patents for a chemical procedure that prevented clumping as well as for a unique pour spout allowed Morton to differentiate the product in a very meaningful way.

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The decision  in 1911 to hire a cutting-edge advertising agency was what allowed Morton to take those ideas and create a package and a slogan that is still recognized by most people in America. NW Ayer & Company was the agency charged with creating a series of magazine ads and they produced 15 concepts, which included 12 ads to run in a series in Good Housekeeping magazine as well as three substitute concepts for the executives to review. It was Sterling Morton, the son of the founder and the company’s Secretary who advocated dropping the agency’s 12 proposed concepts in favor of one of the alternates: a little girl with an umbrella and a canister of Morton salt under her arm. Sterling felt that this simple image told the product’s story simply, “Here was the whole story in a picture – the message that the salt would run in damp weather was made beautifully evident.” The proposed copy needed some work though, and ultimately evolved from the original slogan “Even in rainy weather, it flows freely” to the time-tested tagline which is a classic by any measure, “When It Rains It Pours.

The emotions that we associate with kitchens and cooking are tied closely to this iconic brand, due at least in part to its ubiquity. How many grandma’s kitchens have existed throughout the 20th century that didn’t contain that simple blue cardboard container? How quick are consumers to reach for that box in the grocery store because of the comfort it brings and the warmth we experience when we see it? How many of us aren’t willing to spend the extra 13¢ we might save by choosing a competitor’s more generic salt?

Morton has wisely updated the brand regularly through the decades, keeping it fresh and contemporary for each new generation. This is a brand that knows what works and has stuck with it consistently over time. The logo, tagline, and packaging stand out visually and emotionally and the company continues to thrive in a competitive atmosphere. The retail business may change, shelf space may be ever more valuable, and consumer’s taste may evolve, but Morton Salt stands proudly – a constant reminder of the value of history, context, and flavor.

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