Chocolate-like in appearance but with a flavor like nothing else on earth, the yeast extract spread Vegemite is essentially synonymous with Australia. Hired by the ambitious Fred Walker to create a copy of the British spread, Marmite (which coincidentally has an adorable Twitter feed), food scientist Cyril Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based on a mutual interest in developing a processed cheese with a longer shelf life, Walker joined forces with James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926, whose Melbourne factory and head offices are pictured below (image 1).
High in B vitamins during an historical moment when vitamins themselves were a new scientific phenomenon, Vegemite was from the beginning marketed by the Fred Walker Company as nutritious, particularly for children. For example, a Vegemite advertisement from the 1920s assured consumers that “there is no food richer in vitamins than Vegemite” and a point of sale advertisement from the 1930s emphasized the spread’s nutritional content and the themes of vitality, health, and childhood (image 2).
Despite its vitamin content, consumers were initially slow to embrace Vegemite, but ads by American advertising giant, J. Walter Thompson, who commenced its Australian operations in 1930, began to turn the tide. The agency’s campaigns in 1937 and 1938 included a limerick competition, Pontiac giveaways, and cash prizes. Employing a different tactic, advertisements in 1939 included health endorsements by the British Medical Association. Collectively, these efforts resulted in jars and tins of Vegemite (image 3) becoming a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry,” at least according to “The Vegemite Story” as presented on the Vegemite website.
During World War II, Vegemite was rationed domestically so that it could be included in Australian soldiers’ field rations. Even when it was not available on store shelves, J. Walter Thompson ensured that Vegemite remained on the public’s mind with a deluge of ads, linking Vegemite to patriotism and national identity. One WWII Vegemite ad featured a cherubic child who’s “doing his bit for his Dad” and the war effort, while others showed Australian citizens giving their Vegemite to the fighting forces (image 4).
By the post-war period, Vegemite had risen to icon status, embodying Australian nationalism, independence, identity, health, prosperity, and the future. Of all the post-war advertising, scholars credit the “Happy Little Vegemites” campaign, which maintained a media presence for sixty years, for securing and sustaining Vegemite’s national status. Developed by J. Walter Thompson, the catchy jingle first ran on radio in 1954 and was adapted to television in 1956, along with a print campaign that ran throughout the decade and into the 1960s. Perhaps feeding off of the post-war baby boom and the figurative capacity of children to communicate the birth of a new Australian identity, the campaign featured Australian children, growing up, healthy and happy by eating Vegemite. The campaign was revived with splashes of color in the 1980s and again in 2007, making its imagery and unforgettable tune relevant to generations of Australians.
I am excited for some upcoming opportunities to share my research on Vegemite. I’ll be talking more about Vegemite’s marketing at the Taste Trekkers 2014 Food & Travel Expo, October 3-5 in Providence and giving a formal paper presentation on Vegemite in the United States during the years 1968-1988 at the Food Heritage, Hybridity, and Locality Conference at Brown University, October 23-25, 2014.
I hope that you’ll join us at the Food Heritage, Hybridity, and Locality Conference! The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.