By Tim Bean
Try as he might, poor William Wrigley Jr. just couldn’t get the good citizens of Chicago interested in his father’s cleaning bar, Wrigley’s Mineral Scouring Soap.
It wasn’t from lack of experience; William had been started as a salesman for his father’s celebrated cleansing bar when he was 13. By the time he was 30, only his own father knew more about soap-selling than the younger Wrigley. When he arrived in Chicago with his wife and daughter, he expected quick success. It didn’t happen.
His father’s soap was a workhorse of a home staple and cleaned everything from tub stains to paint spills, but there was nothing amazing about it. It was simply a cake of abrasive powder, dried soap, and a dash of bleach. Plenty of competing brands populated American store shelves at the time (Bar Keepers’ Friend, Ajax, Comet, Bon Ami, and Vim to name a few).
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William Wrigley Sr.’s real talent, and one he passed down to his son, was in attractive marketing. He didn’t just list the the hundreds of uses for his inexpensive soap cakes, since every company did that. The older Wrigley coupled his advertisements and promotions with freebies, which kept customers coming back. These promotions included simple items like free envelopes to carry customer comments or complaints directly back to Wrigley, but Wrigley’s marketing campaigns included extravagant giveaways as well.
Beautifully-etched parlor lamps, winding clocks, ash trays, tip trays, kitchen scales, watches, you name it. While neither Wrigley created the promotional item (now colloquially called “merch”) concept, they were among the first to realize its power. Customers believe they are getting something for nothing, or next to nothing; in reality, they are willingly turning themselves and their homes into living, breathing product advertisements.
When Wrigley Jr. started struggled with the slow sales in the Windy City, he quickly adopted his father’s strategy and coupled premiums with bars of Wrigley’s Mineral Scouring Soap. He didn’t have the wealth or resources of his father, so he kept it simple, settling on baking powder to complement the abrasive cleaner.
Within a few short weeks of this promotion, William Wrigley Jr. realized the baking powder sold better than the soap. In fact, customers bought the soap only as an afterthought. Like any good businessman, Wrigley wasn’t overly-sentimental and didn’t hesitate to abandon his father’s product. As his baking powder sales increased, Wrigley once again decided to promote the product by including a few sticks of chewing gum in 1893, only two years after first arriving in Chicago.
Not even his father had seen such success. William Wrigley Jr. once again didn’t hesitate to switch industries. Instead of manufacturing soap or baking powder, he settled firmly on his own brand of chewing gum, starting his empire with two distinctive flavors.
Wrigley’s Spearmint, while a very popular product, was hardily ground-breaking. Several brands of mint chewing gum were already floating behind panes of clear glass in candy stores.
Juicy Fruit, however, delighted the world. No one had ever tasted anything like it, and William Wrigley Jr. decided to keep it that way. Even today, the exact recipe for Juicy Fruit chewing gum remains a mystery, much like the recipe for Coca-Cola. And like Coca-Cola, this secretive recipe is more a gimmick than a necessity.
Also like Coca-Cola, Wrigley had entered a highly competitive market. Chewing gum makers came and went; it wasn’t enough to be profitable. The Wrigley brand had to dominate. He poured much of his company’s earnings into advertising, spending around one million dollars a year on promotions (equivalent to around $30 million today). Combining this advertising capital with his experience, Wrigley soon became the most famous name in chewing gum, and stood alongside the industrial titans of the early 1900s.
The popularity of Juicy Fruit itself hasn’t waned much since its creation 100 years ago. It was even removed from public production during World War II so the nation’s supply of this banana-peach-pineapple confection could be used in C-rations for American soldiers.