Vintage Jell-O ads offer a valuable lesson

Times change but some marketing tactics not that much!

I discovered that when I came across some 1920’s Jell-O promotions (a branding ad and a direct response ad) at an antique shop a couple of years ago. I was struck by some powerful marketing tactics Jell-O used then — tactics that still work well today, and that you could use to your advantage.

First, let’s look at the vintage Jello-O branding ad below.

Jell-O Branding Ad

Branding creates product awareness by forging an identity. With just a few words and an upper-class image, this Jell-O brand ad positions the product as an impressive delight that now ALL Americans can enjoy. Why now (the 20s)? Well, did you know that gelatin wasn’t always for the masses? It was too expensive, as well as too labor-intensive if you didn’t have servants! Jell-O changed that with its easy-to-make, easy-on-the-pocketbook product.

But Jell-O didn’t stop there.

What made Jell-O hugely successful back in the early 1900’s was the distribution of free recipe books.* And to help distribute these recipe books they used direct response ads — like the one you see below.

Jell-O Direct Response Ad
Unlike a branding ad, a direct response ad’s goal is to get the reader to take immediate action — like fill out an order form to actually buy the product, click on a button to learn more about an organization, call an 800 number or, in Jell-O’s case, mail a coupon to get a free recipe book. Another distinction: Measureable response. You get data with direct response. Instead of guessing, you KNOW what works and what doesn’t with your customer base. And you can collect their home and email addresses for future promotions.

Once you’ve targeted your audience, these two elements (which the Jell-O ad contains) are critical to the success of a direct response ad:

BENEFITS-HEAVY COPY: You’re asking people to act now. So forget the fluff and provide longer copy with solid benefits. Jell-O did (it doesn’t overtax digestion, nutrition experts say it provides good food value, it’s not just for dessert, etc.).

OFFER, WITH URGENT CALL-TO-ACTION: A free item — like the free Jell-O recipe book — is a great magnet for response. But other offers, like a limited-time discount price, also do the trick.

So, take a lesson from Jell-O: Brand your product for strong identity, but then use direct response to boost your bottom line.

*Wikipedia Jell-O article