Despite a high level of public awareness, initial sales of the product were slow, which the marketer attributed primarily to the spread's intensely strong taste. Many consumers likened it to "rusty salt" or "highly concentrated soy paste" before learning to spread it thinly on bread. A little Vegemite—or "A mere smear"—went a long way.
Joining with Kraft
In 1926, Walker joined with James L. Kraft of Chicago to form Kraft Walker Cheese Co., which began manufacturing processed cheese in Australia. In 1928, Mr. Walker, still controlling the Vegemite brand, changed the product's name to Parwill and ran the slogan, "If Ma might, then Pa will!"—a parody of Marmite's popular "My mate—Marmite." The new name failed to increase sales, however, and it was soon changed back to Vegemite.
The Walker-Kraft partnership continued until 1935, when Mr. Kraft acquired controlling interest in the company after Mr. Walker's death.
The first truly successful campaign for Vegemite came promotion that year; a coupon included with Kraft-Walker Blue Packet cheddar cheese dramatically increased sales of the spread.
The campaign that launched Vegemite across Australia, however, came two years later in the form of a contest in which consumers submitted limericks with a Vegemite theme to win prizes such as imported cars. The contest generated tremendous national awareness of Vegemite, and sales grew dramatically.
Following this boost in awareness, Vegemite received a nutritional endorsement from the British Medical Association in 1939. Soon, doctors across Australia began to recommend it to patients as a balanced, nutrient-rich food.
When Australia entered World War II, Vegemite was in every Australian soldier's ration kit. The demand for Vegemite among soldiers suddenly became so strong (the intense taste made the rest of the meal ration more palatable) that domestic shortages were common. When the soldiers returned home, most were hooked on the spread, and domestic sales soared.
With the postwar baby boom, an entire generation of children grew up with Vegemite. In 1946, label tie-ins with Walt Disney Co. characters cemented the product's image as the healthy spread for parents to feed their children. This family image led to the 1954 launch of the product's only famous ad campaign, "We're Happy Little Vegemites," created by J. Walter Thompson Co.
What began as a radio jingle soon became a national craze, and sales continued to rise. The "Happy Little Vegemites" campaign lasted until it was replaced with the less memorable "Three Stages of Man" campaign in the mid-1960s. The "Three Stages" campaign emphasized the health benefits of Vegemite to all age groups. Sales leveled off, however, and the "Pass the Vegemite, Mum" campaign, which ran until the 1980s, was created.
Over the years, Vegemite was transformed from a mere product into an Australian cultural icon. The Australian band Men at Work gave the brand international exposure in the song "Down Under," with the lyric, "He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich." Recognizing a trend, Kraft brought back the "Happy Little Vegemites" campaign with a retro twist, using the same jingle but matching it with nostalgic 8mm film.
Vegemite celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997. At that time, Australians were consuming 22 million jars of Vegemite a year, and more than 90% of Australian homes had Vegemite in the cupboard. Kraft celebrated by sponsoring a competition in which more than 900 schools sang the "Happy Little Vegemites" jingle for a chance to win a $75,000 prize.
The Vegemite account was handled by JWT for most of the brand's history until the late 1980s, when it was shifted to Mojo, Melbourne. But after a 14-year association, Kraft moved Vegemite back to JWT in January 2001 as part of a global agency realignment.