William H. Danforth founded the Robinson-Danforth Commission, a horse- and mule-feed business that was the predecessor of the Ralston-Purina Co., in 1894 in St. Louis. In the early days of the 20th century, the company marketed a whole-wheat breakfast cereal under the Purina brand, a name adapted from the company slogan, "Where purity is paramount." After receiving an endorsement from a physician and natural foods enthusiast with a large following, a Dr. Ralston, the cereal was renamed Ralston wheat cereal.
In 1902, the company was renamed Ralston Purina Co. Its famous checkerboard logo came from a childhood memory of Mr. Danforth's. He recalled a farm family whose mother used the same bolt of red-and-white cloth to make clothes for all her children.
Ralston Purina continued to expand its cereal offerings, and the founder's son, Donald Danforth, introduced new cereals such as Wheat Chex (1937), Rice Chex (1950) and Corn Chex (1958). In the 1930s, the company began to rely heavily on advertising and promotions to help it compete for scarce Depression dollars. In 1933, to promote its Dog Chow Checkers dog food, the company sent the product to the South Pole with Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
"Tom Mix" years
That same year, the company hired Gardner Advertising Co., New York and St. Louis, and bought radio time, sponsoring a children's cowboy show called "The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters." Based on the career and legend of Tom Mix, a real-life cowboy turned movie star in the silent film era, the series ran from 1933 to 1951. Spots were laced with frequent promotions for merchandise that could be obtained by sending Ralston box tops to "Checkerboard Square, St. Louis, Mo."
By the mid-1950s, Ralston Purina had established itself as a consumer-products company with the successful introduction of Dog Chow, a new dry dog food. The product was so successful that production trailed demand, and supplies of Dog Chow had to be rationed to consumers.
The 1960s and '70s saw a series of acquisitions, including Van Camp Seafood Co. (sold in 1988), Foodmaker and Jack-in-the-Box. Gardner Advertising delivered creative advertising, adding the "All you add is love" tagline to Dog Chow advertising. The marketer also entered the moist cat food category with its Tender Vittles brand and introduced a new brand of children's cereal, Cookie Crisp.
During the 1980s, Ralston acquired Continental Baking, which it sold in 1995; Eveready Batteries, which it bought in 1986; and Beech-Nut Corp., bought in 1989. At the same time, it advanced its pet food and cereal operations in Europe and the Far East.
In October 1989, the marketer launched a new campaign for its Eveready Batteries via Chiat/Day. The drum-playing pink Energizer Bunny (named by Advertising Age as one of the top 10 ad icons of the century) showcased the product's unique selling proposition?long-lived batteries?in an inventive and fresh way.
Credit for creating the original campaign goes to DDB Needham, Chicago, which got the account from incumbent William Esty Co. in 1986. Three years later, the account shifted to Chiat/Day when Eveready disagreed with DDB Needham about the scope of the bunny's use as an advertising vehicle.
The 1990s saw further restructuring. Most notably, in 1994, Ralcorp was created as Ralston Purina spun off its smaller businesses, led by its cereal products and Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. The big pet foods and Eveready divisions were thought to be frustrating the needs of these smaller but growing businesses. Ralston Purina's cereals by this time comprised private-label brands (accounting for 60% of its sales), the four Chex varieties and a few smaller brands.
The company decided to consolidate its branded cereal advertising, and in October 1994 awarded the business to D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis. Beech-Nut also refocused its strategy from TV to ads in parenting magazines, public relations and a direct-mail program from Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago.
Pushing dog and cat foods
The 1990s saw a renewed effort for Ralston Purina's dog and cat foods. The advertising campaign for Purina's flagship brand, Purina Dog Chow, from Fallon-McElligott, won the Grand Effie award in 1995 for its effectiveness in boosting sales (up more than 20%). The campaign featured dogs that became finicky eaters or developed stomach problems after their owners switched brands. In 1999, the agency won a Gold Effie for its "Incredible Dog Food, Incredible Dogs" campaign.
Berlin Cameron & Partners created a campaign for Tidy Cat that portrayed felines debating the merits of a product strong enough for use in households with multiple cats.
In addition to traditional media, Ralston Purina developed Web sites for its Tidy Cats, Cat Chow, Kitten Chow and Meow Mix brands. In 1998, the company also sponsored the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge, an "extreme dogs" event with 1,200 canine competitors, an audience of roughly 4,000 spectators and coverage on ESPN.
In December 2001, Switzerland-based Nestl? SA acquired Ralston Purina Co. in a $10.1 billion deal that required the merged company to divest Meow Mix and Alley Cat dry cat foods to Hartz Mountain Corp. The new company operates under the name Nestl? Purina Pet Care.