Thousands of people across America are eagerly awaiting a case of the blue Balls.
Jarden Home Brands -- which licenses one of the oldest brands in America, Ball Home Canning -- has released a limited-edition "Heritage Collection" line to mark the centennial of the innovation commonly known as the mason jar. A commemorative note etched onto each pale cyan glass container is marked with "100 Years of American Heritage" and the year 1913, denoting the date the Ball Brothers, a group of five U.S. industrialists, integrated the construction of the jars so it was no longer a lid made by one person and a jar made by another.
This homage to old-school jars is just the latest way that Ball, a brand more than 125 years old yet experiencing its best sales in history, is catering to a fervent fan base. More than ever, Americans are eager to rediscover the art of canning.
The brand revival began a few years ago when Ball realized it was in, er, a bit of a jam.
It may sound like a homey little brand, but Ball is acutally part of a huge consumer products company based in Rye, N.Y. The $6.7 billion portfolio for Jarden spans outdoor and kitchen products including Marmot, Coleman, CrockPot, Mr. Coffee, Oster and Sunbeam. (Jarden does not break out sales for Ball.)
With over 96% brand awareness, name recognition wasn't a problem for Ball. But research showed there were many misperceptions about canning that prevented people from trying the process -- including worries that it was time consuming, too complex and unsafe. There was also the matter of fighting off competition from the likes of big private labelers like Walmart and other retailers. With the help of its agency of record, Kansas City, Mo.-based Barkley, and 360 Public Relations, Ball has gotten its bearings on a low budget.
Over the past two years, it's undertaken social-media campaigns and online canning demonstrations to expand its reach. It has modernized communication, leaping from the pages of Good Housekeeping to Pinterest and Facebook, and in the past year has devoted attention to developing new products to connect with a younger audience.
Timing helped. The recession fueled a resurgence in home canning and DIY projects while Americans' focus on healthy homemade and artisan foods made with fresh ingredients has been a boon for Ball. And as a heritage brand, it's riding the throwback trend -- when not used for actual canning, the jars often serve as simple centerpieces at outdoor weddings or as glasses at comfort-food restaurants.
Peruse Pinterest and the fandom is evident. There you'll find all manner of ideas of novel ideas for repurposing Ball Jars, including one page dedicated to 101 different uses. They range from making layered salads in a jar; creating a hanging light; making a DIY air-freshener; and using Ball Jars as a bathroom accessory to hold cotton balls and swabs.
Traditionally, there were two main brands when it came to mason jars: Ball and Kerr, with Ball being used primarily east of the Mississippi River and Kerr being used west of it. Both are licensed by Jarden, so they're not quite competitors. But the most loyal and passionate fans over the years have been for Ball, and it's where the majority of the marketing support has gone as the brand migrates across the country.
Passing the passion around
For a sense of how passionate home canners are about Ball, go back to 1992. At the time, there was a Twinkie-like run on the jars when news reports about a spin-off prompted worries the company was in trouble. Ball had to publicly reassure its stockpiling consumer base that it was going to be around for a long time to come.
While Ball was a trusted brand, back then it wasn't growing or innovating. Sales of home-preservation products were flat through the 1990s, and there wasn't much new in product strategy or innovation.
Chris Carlisle, senior director-marketing for the Ball home-canning products, said the trick is to strike a balance between keeping relationships with longtime fans and bringing millennials into the fold.
"We want to preserve the authenticity of Ball, but you have to show that you're moving forward," he said, noting that the company has been focused on a product strategy that simultaneously shows where Ball "has been historically and where we want to go."
That thinking bred a new appliance called the "FreshTech Automatic Jam & Jelly Maker." Users can just dump in some fresh fruit, sugar and pectin, and jam is created in under 30 minutes, cooking and stirring the ingredients for you. "We understand [cooking is] time sensitive today and the making of fresh jams and jellies is a bit of a lost art," Mr. Carlisle said. "Our job is to pass the passion around."
It's also expanding beyond jams, jellies and pickling with fresh-food innovations such as a wet herb keeper that extends the life of fresh herbs.
Keeping at the forefront of product development is crucial at a time when Ball's core product faces competition from private labelers. Walmart has launched a line of private-label products under its Mainstays brand, while the upmarket Williams Sonoma has been
Kilner jars from England. Ball jars retail for $12 a dozen, while Kilners can run as high as $25 for four.
"Part of our protection as a brand is the notion of authenticity and what that means -- particularly to younger consumers -- is staying true to our roots," said Mr. Carlisle. "Our jars and lids are still made in the USA, and if you look across the competitive set … they are sourcing their jars from China. (Ball jars are predominantly made in Indiana, with some production also occurring at plant in Salem, N.J). He added: "None of those other brands have a communication strategy that facilitates storytelling, while our consumers get to participate in a two-way conversation."
Ball has changed its media-allocation strategy to largely shift from marketing in cooking magazines toward social media and events. (According to Kantar in 2012, measured media was $1 million, but digital spending takes the figure much higher.) The company hired Barkley in 2010, which has since launched a campaign called "Shine Through," indicating that an individual's personality and creativity can shine through with the use of Ball products. The strategy involves a total revamp of the Ball website, renaming it freshpreserving.com; a streamlined e-commerce interface; and an easy-to-use recipe section.
"Ball's challenge was to re-energize the category as the category leader, and take share -- and that's tough to do -- but they did it," said Jeff Fromm, exec VP at Barkley and co-author of "Marketing to Millennials," which is due in July. He attributes much of the growth to paying attention to the ways that younger consumers may want to interact with the brand. "Some of the interesting things we know about millennials is that they are interested in being enviro-friendly and they like sharing things with their friends. That trait is shareworthiness. It's not about the brand, it's about them. If you enable their sharing and self-expression, then they like your brand."
How did Ball make itself shareworthy? An expanded social strategy on Facebook allowed new canners to learn from experienced ones. Ball also held events with Sherri Brooks Vinton (a well-known canner and cookbook author) and launched national "Can-It-Forward" day events at farmers markets where canning demonstrations were held concurrently in person and online.
Over the holidays, Barkley ran a promotion on Facebook called the 25 days of anti-gift cards. Each day running down to Christmas, the campaign offered new uses for the jar, for example, as part of a vodka-infusing kit or way to store keepsakes from favorite vacations.
In the span of a year, Facebook fans increased by 40% and website visits increased by 30%, bringing the company firmly back into the conversation again. And on one of the ultimate sharing sites, Pinterest, Ball is approaching 4,000 fans. With the help of 360 Public Relations, Pinterest is now one of the top 10 referral sites to Ball.com for e-commerce, which it only began in earnest in 2011.
But most important, this can-do attitude has led to strong sales. Mr. Carlisle said "2012 was far and away our best sales year ever -- we grew 20%. It changed the profile of the brand and we saw a big leap in our sales growth." Not bad for a brand born before the advent of touch typing. And Ball thinks the future looks even brighter. "We continue to see momentum in 2013," said Mr. Carlisle, anticipating the company's biggest volume months ever this June, July and August.
Or in Ball terminology, he believes the brand will shine through.