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Marketing Lessons From The Spanish Flu Times

Lately we have read lot about the need to reinvent ourselves, to find ” new ” outlets, and I agree. However a good exercise in the creative process would be to put to rest the obsession to came out with something completely new and instead start dusting off history. History is our ally. This is not the first global pandemic. History is full of businesses that survived major difficulties and uncertainties. Looking into the past is a good start for creating future strategies.

It was very interesting for me to know that in the 1920s, (post-war, Great Depression, the Spanish Flu) was the time where market research agencies emerged and where advertising firms were affirmed. There is little consolidated data on how the brands survived, however there are several original documents from that epoch from where to extrapolate valuable data.

Vintage ad
For years, Prudential Insurance’s advertising promoted the company’s rock-solid dependability with its Rock of Gibraltar trademark. But in the 1920s, it began emphasizing the dangers of being uninsured, graphically illustrating the fates that could await customers who let their life insurance lapse. Source: saturdayeveningpost
Woman feeding orphans

An example? The mattress industry exploded because a lot of rest was recommended.

Vintage Ad from 1926

According to from Blackford and Kerr, in their Business Enterprise in American History the decade of 1920’s (Spanish Flu time) while marketing was emerging as a conscious business strategy, advertising matured as an important industry. The maturation of advertising in the 1920s and the creation of marketing departments and marketing strategies by major firms both promoted consumer values in American society and reflected the rise of the consumer society. In 1919 advertising costs were 8 percent of total distribution costs in industry; by 1929, the share was 14 percent. In that latter year, advertising costs reached nearly $3 billion.

In the 1920s, a new conception of marketing began to appear that influenced business strategy and led to changes in the structure of American firms. Marketing as an orientation involved conceiving of a company as an institution that sold goods as opposed to simply producing them. Marketing meant setting the firm’s strategy according to realistic observations of available customers and then organizing the firm to coordinate production, distribution, sales, and service according to those observations. In the 1920s and 1930s, pioneers in the marketing approach to management learned the importance of differentiating their products from those of their competitors, of having a range of products to offer consumers, and of advertising heavily to influence customers’ behavior.During the 1920s, while marketing was emerging as a conscious business strategy, advertising matured as an important industry. The maturation of advertising in the 1920s and the creation of marketing departments and marketing strategies by major firms both promoted consumer values in American society and reflected the rise of the consumer society. In 1919 advertising costs were 8 percent of total distribution costs in industry; by 1929, the share was 14 percent. In that latter year, advertising costs reached nearly $3 billion.The content of advertising messages shifted in the early twentieth century. Before 1910, advertisers mostly sought to inform customers about products; after 1910, the main goal was to create a desire to purchase products. By the 1920s, advertising executives recognized that theirs was a business to make consumers want products, and they deliberately sought to break down popular attitudes of self-denial and to foster the idea of instant gratification through consumption. The introduction of new techniques for printing advertisements in color opened new possibilities of suggestion and persuasion. As a result of the growth of advertising expenditures in the 1920s, not only did the magazine business prosper but business executives were better able than ever before to inject attitudes favorable to consumption–even for products for which there was no need. The makers of Fleischmann’s yeast, for instance, claimed that the product, in addition to leavening bread, cured “intestinal fatigue” when eaten directly. And one advertisement for Listerine, which promoted fears about a disease newly discovered by copywriters, “halitosis,” suggested that “unpleasant breath” was the main “obstacle to pleasant business, professional, and social relations” and urged Americans to use the mouthwash as a way of climbing the social and economic ladder.

At the same time that the advertising industry was flourishing, a few business firms launched innovative programs in “commercial research,” or what later generations called marketing.

Coca-Cola serves as a good example of how product advertising changed over this forty-year period. When first introduced in the 1880s, the product was marketed as a medicine, with claims that it cured headaches, and that it “revived and sustained” a person. Seeking to build repeat business and brand loyalty, by the 1920s the company emphasized it as a refreshment and a “fun food”. Consumers demanding the cola at soda fountains could pressure storeowners to stock it, or risk losing their business. Today Coca-Cola is one of the largest and most visible companies in the world thanks to its successful advertisement campaigns.


J. Walter Thompson Company
, which claims to be both the first full-service ad agency and the creator of the grilled cheese sandwich (for client Kraft in 1930), was considered the leader in radio advertising. Camel and Lucky Strike began duking it out in a war for the tobacco crown. Radio advertising became an intense competitive market from there on in. It set the stage for what history likes to call the Golden Age of the 1930s.
The advertising industry developed additional strategies in the 1920’s.
 
 
         In this decade, companies began to use professional athletes and popular figures to promote their product for the first time.
 
Additional Strategies:
As a result of gender roles becoming less rigid, companies began to address women and men with similar advertisement techniques. 
Printed advertisements also went through changes in this time. Before ads rarely contained exciting images or fonts and were usually no wider than a single column. This all changed in the 1920’s. Ads began to use bright colors and eye catching photographs or graphics to attract consumers.
 
 All areas of advertising experience change and development in this time.
Ad from 1924

Are you working in redesigning your business strategy? May I suggest to go to your browser and search for the past in your niche? You may be surprised that indeed, there is nothing new under the Sun. Be inspired!

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