In 1858, Gail Borden Jr. founded the New York Condensed Milk Co. to market Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk, which he had introduced two years earlier. In 1858, Mr. Borden wrote his first ad to convince housewives to try his new product, which, he said, "for purity, durability and economy, is hitherto unequaled in the annals of the milk trade."
In 1861, when the U.S. Civil War broke out, Mr. Borden provisioned the Union Army with condensed milk field rations. Because demand far exceeded supply, he licensed other manufacturers to use the Borden patent and trademark. By the war's end in 1865, so many competitors had appropriated his name that Borden devised the Eagle Brand trademark for his condensed milk.
Borden touted Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, which used sugar as a preservative, as a high-nutrition infant formula when diluted with water. When medical studies began to show the effect of sugar on children's teeth, however, consumers began to look for alternative formulas and sales began to wane. Borden then repositioned the product for use in desserts.
Mr. Borden died in Texas in 1874, but his company continued to grow, adding fresh milk and evaporated milk to its product line. In 1899, the Borden Condensed Milk Co., as it was then known, had annual sales of approximately $10 million. Another name change, to the Borden Co., came in 1919 when the company tallied sales of $122 million.
In 1928, Borden acquired the U.S.' two leading ice cream marketers; a year later, it added cheese to its product line. That same year, Borden tapped Young & Rubicam, New York, to handle its advertising, and Y&R remained the lead agency for Borden for much of the next 40 years.
Debut of Elsie
In the 1930s, "milk wars" between farmers and dairy processors led to consumers perceiving big dairies as evil moneymakers. To counter that image, Borden adopted a friendly approach, promoting the cleanliness and high quality of its products.
Elsie the Cow was one of four bovines in a 1936 ad campaign in medical journals. In one ad, the cartoon cow was shown finishing a letter that read, "Dear Mama: I'm so excited I can hardly chew! We girls are sending our milk to Borden's now. Love, Elsie." The ads were created by Stuart Peabody, Borden's director of advertising, and illustrator Walter Early.
In 1938, Borden added radio, sponsoring newscasts with commentator Rush Hughes, who read the letters-from-Elsie spots. Fan mail poured in, and Borden launched a national campaign featuring Elsie in consumer magazines; it also selected a Jersey heifer that toured in various events as Elsie.
About 1941, Elsie, went bipedal and took on the attributes of an average young housewife. She also gained a family, with husband Elmer and daughter Beulah appearing with her in ads.
After World War II, Elsie promoted a line of Borden-branded products. In 1947, she gave birth to a male calf, and the marketer ran a contest to name the baby ("Beauregard" was the winning entry) that brought in 1 million entries, an all-time record for an advertising contest at that time.
After the war, technical problems in transferring Elsie to film kept her out of TV spots, which shifted instead toward specific products. In 1951, Borden introduced a trademark depicting Elsie with a garland of daisies around her neck and daisy petals encircling her face.
At about the same time, Borden returned to the pasture, repurposing Elmer to represent its Cascorez white glue, which had been introduced in 1947. In 1951, Borden rebranded Cascorez as Elmer's Glue-All and featured Elsie's spouse on packaging and in a magazine and direct-mail campaign from James Thomas Chirurg Co.
Sponsorships and contests
Borden celebrated its centennial beginning in 1957 with a campaign in Reader's Digest and also kicked off a $100,000 contest to "Name the twins," the latest additions to Elsie's family, with ads in national magazines, food-business publications and Sunday supplements as well as TV promotions. Y&R handled the contest, which drew nearly 3 million entries.
In 1961, Borden's sales exceeded $1 billion, and in July 1964, the company began to use the Fischer quintuplets, the most famous multiple-birth family of the era, in its advertising. That October, Borden expanded its TV show coverage to 10 daytime programs on ABC and NBC.
While it remained a strong presence on daytime TV, Borden once again scaled back its use of Elsie. The marketer went so far as to attempt to retire Elsie altogether and develop a new Borden trademark, but a survey showed she was still one of the most recognized trademarks in the U.S.
In March 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Federal Trade Commission decision that Borden must justify differences between Borden brand canned milk and private brand milk packed by Borden on the basis of cost, effectively ruling that advertising does not add to a product's value. Dissenting Justice Potter Stewart wrote, "The product purchased by the consumer includes not only the chemical components that any competent laboratory can itemize, but also a host of commercial intangibles that distinguish the product in the marketplace. The premium price paid for Borden brand milk reflects the consumer's awareness, promoted through advertising, that these commercial attributes are part and parcel of the premium product he is purchasing."
In 1966, after traces of salmonella were discovered in samples of Starlac, Borden began a recall of the nonfat dry milk. Soon after, the company became the first in the U.S. to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection shield on its new product, Borden's Instant Nonfat dry milk, which premiered with heavy print and TV ad schedules plus point-of-purchase materials.
In 1968, the company changed its name to Borden Inc. That December, Y&R resigned its last remaining Borden assignments, terminating its 40-year relationship with the company. Ross Roy Inc., New York, won the cheese products business in March 1969. In 1970, Borden's total ad budget of more than $35 million was divided among 18 agencies, including Tracy-Locke, Dallas, which won the milk and ice cream accounts.
Despite its introduction of new products-such as Lite Line milk and cheeses-Borden's dairy and services division closed some operations and consolidated others as the 1960s drew to a close. In 1970, it withdrew altogether from the milk business in New York, then in California.
In 1971, Borden's sales exceeded $2 billion and, with the help of technological advances, an animated Elsie returned to TV advertising that year in the first of several spots targeting children. In 1988, Borden's sales climbed to $7.2 billion. But when the company withdrew from some highly competitive fluid milk and cultured product markets in the East, Southeast and Midwest, it downsized its domestic dairy business.
In 1995, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. acquired Borden and two years later licensed its Borden and Elsie trademarks to Dairy Farmers of America, the largest dairy co-op in North America, which maintained the Elsie trademark on Borden Dairy-branded products
In 1998, BBDO Worldwide, Chicago, won the Borden's Singles and Naturals cheese account and the next year introduced the tagline "Borden brings the dairy home" in spots featuring a cameo of an animated, winking Elsie. A national print campaign for Borden's Singles, also featuring Elsie, ran in 2001.
In summer 2004, Elsie once again was trotted out in a comeback print and promotional effort dubbed "Bring Elsie Home" from Zipatoni, St. Louis.