In 1886, Samuel Curtis Johnson, a carpenter in Racine, Wis., bought the parquet flooring business of the Racine Hardware Co. In 1888, Mr. Johnson introduced Johnson's Prepared Wax to help his customers take care of their floors. The company began its international expansion in 1914, establishing a subsidiary in Britain, followed by operations in Australia in 1917 and Canada in 1920.
After the death of Samuel Curtis Johnson in 1919, his son, Herbert F. Johnson, took the reins. Annual sales had reached $5 million when he died unexpectedly in 1928. He left no will, precipitating a family struggle for control of the company that took a decade to settle. In 1938, Herbert's son, Herbert Jr. got 60% of the company, while his sister, Henrietta Louis, received 40%.
The "Fibber McGee" years
In the early years, Johnson's primary offering was wax. As late as the mid-1930s, the company's product line was limited to waxes, silver and furniture polishes, household cleaners, paints, varnishes and enamels. Although the company had advertised since the 1880s, it did not become a major ad player until April 1935, when its flagship brand, Johnson Wax, began sponsoring "Fibber McGee and Molly" on NBC. Through its ad agency, Needham, Louis & Brorby, Chicago, Johnson sponsored the radio show until 1950.
In 1950, Johnson became a TV advertiser for the first time, with "Saturday Night Revue." Soon after, it also became a sponsor of "Robert Montgomery Presents" and "The Red Skelton Show."
Pride liquid furniture polish was introduced in 1951, heralded with spreads from Needham in publications such as Better Homes & Gardens, American Home, Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle, Woman's Day and newspaper Sunday supplements. Needham, which had been on board since 1929, remained the sole domestic Johnson advertising agency until the early 1950s, when it was joined by another Chicago-based shop, Foote, Cone & Belding, which initially handled fabric finishes and auto polishes.
It was also during the 1950s that S.C. Johnson made a major leap into new product areas. The company entered the insecticide field in 1956 with the introduction of Raid House & Garden Bug Killer, which vaulted to first place in sales among aerosol bug killers by year's end. Other new products included Off! insect repellent; Klear, a self-polishing floor wax; and Pledge, a pressurized furniture polish.
In 1957, S.C. Johnson was the No. 60 U.S. advertiser, according to Advertising Age, spending an estimated $12.5 million, with approximately 90% of that in TV. In 1955, Benton & Bowles, New York, joined Johnson's agency roster, handling several wax products. FCB's growing share of the company's ad budget by this time included Klear, Raid and Off!
In the early 1960s, the company entered the shoe polish and lawn-and-garden business and expanded its international operations, establishing Johnson-Kentoku in Osaka, Japan, a venture with Japanese wax manufacturer Kentoku Ltd. By 1963, the company had 21 subsidiaries and 13 manufacturing plants overseas.
In 1961, the company, which was No. 1 in sales in three categories-floor, furniture and auto waxes-placed No. 51 in Advertising Age's annual ranking of leading national advertisers, with estimated expenditures of $19 million. Again, the lion's share of these expenditures was in TV, including sponsorships of "Gunsmoke," "The Garry Moore Show" and "The Red Skelton Show." The company continued its healthy growth through the 1960s and by 1966 had estimated sales of $150 million (a private company, Johnson does not release figures). Its estimated advertising expenditures of $26.5 million ranked it No. 50 among U.S. companies, according to Advertising Age. That year, Samuel C. Johnson became president-CEO, the fourth member of the family to head the company.
"Kills bugs dead"
Among the company's most successful brand franchises was the Raid line of insecticides, introduced in the 1950s and made famous by the long-running campaign from FCB with its "kills bugs dead" theme. The Raid brand was soon extended to other areas of pest control. One of its more memorable ad campaigns was a series of commercials created for Raid Mouse Killer, which featured the animated character "Mac the Mouse." During these years, the company altered its TV strategy, switching from program sponsorships to a "scatter plan" and spread its commercials over more than 100 daytime and prime-time programs on all three major networks.
By 1970, Johnson had risen to No. 46 in Advertising Age's ranking of national advertisers, with expenditures estimated at $35 million. At the beginning of the new decade, the company was believed to have more than 50% of the $45 million furniture polish market, about 50% of the $80 million insecticide and repellent market, and 15% to 18% of the $50 million-plus car wax market, according to Advertising Age.
In 1970, the company acquired Johnson Reels of Mankato, Minn., a marketer of fishing reels and electric trolling motors, and also diversified into new product areas with Edge shaving gel, Crazylegs moisturizing shaving gel for women and Rain Barrel fabric softener.
Ogilvy & Mather became Johnson's newest major ad agency in 1973, getting accounts from other shops on the roster. That year, Johnson severed its 44-year relationship with the Needham shop (then Needham, Harper & Steers). Another Chicago agency, Leo Burnett Co., was added, and products formerly handled by Needham were divided among S.C. Johnson's other roster agencies.
In 1977, the company entered the personalcare field, launching its biggest-ever product introduction?for Agree, a cream rinse and hair conditioner. Johnson spent $14 million on the launch, $7 million on a TV and magazine campaign and $7 million on a sampling program; Needham, which had been rehired, was the agency. Agree rose to the No. 1 spot in the hair conditioner category within six months of its national debut.
More agency shuffling took place in 1978. J. Walter Thompson Co., which had been a Johnson agency abroad, was given the domestic business of Pledge furniture polish, Edge shaving gel and Step Saver floor wax, handled through its Chicago office. Benton & Bowles and Ogilvy & Mather ended their domestic relations with the company because of account conflicts in new-product areas and low billings. As the decade ended, Samuel C. Johnson was named chairman.
In 1983, Johnson again ended its relationship with Needham after a dispute over the company's policy of prohibiting agencies from handling other clients that had brands competing with any Johnson division. Needham's Agree and Enhance haircare and Glade air fresheners accounts went to JWT, and Soft Sense skin lotion went to Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago.
In the mid-1980s, the company entered the over-the-counter drug market through its Rydelle Laboratories subsidiary, which in 1985 introduced Fiberall laxative wafers, an extension of its Fiberall laxative powder. (Rydelle sold the Fiberall bulk laxative line to Ciba-Geigy Corp. in 1988.) Rydelle also acquired Cooper Dermatological Laboratories for further development of its skincare activities and set up a joint venture with Japan's Lyon Corp. to market oral care products in the U.S. and Canada.
In 1989, Johnson consolidated virtually all its U.S. consumer product advertising?about $90 million in spending?at longtime agency FCB. Losing out in the consolidation were JWT and Lotas, Minard, Patton, McIver, New York. As the 1990s began, Johnson ranked No. 66 in U.S. ad spending at $158.1 million, with almost half of that figure in TV advertising.
Early in 1993, the company further diversified with the purchase of Bristo-Myers Squibb's Drackett Co., marketer of Drano, the top brand in drain cleaners, and Windex, which accounted for about 40% of the window cleaner market. For a third time, Needham?now DDB Needham Worldwide?was brought aboard, this time to handle Drano and Windex. Also in 1993, the company sold the Agree and Halsa haircare lines to Dep Corp.
In January 1996, Johnson combined its more than $300 million in worldwide ad spending at True North Communications, the Chicago-based parent of FCB. The move gave the company a single agency for all its worldwide brands and eliminated 27 other agencies, among them Needham, JWT, BBDO Worldwide and Dentsu.
In 1997, Johnson acquired DowBrands, the consumer products division of Dow Chemical Co. A few months later, the company sold three Dow products?Spray 'N Wash, Spray 'N Starch and Glass Plus?to Reckitt & Colman to satisfy federal antitrust concerns. In March 1999, the company sold its skincare business to Johnson & Johnson.
In October 2000, H. Fisk Johnson was named chairman, representing the fifth generation of the family to head the company. His father, Samuel C. Johnson, was named chairman emeritus.
In 2002, S.C. Johnson had worldwide sales estimated at $5 billion, up 11.1% from 2001. It ranked No. 90 among national advertisers that year, according to Advertising Age, with U.S. ad spending estimated at $340.7 million, a 0.6% increase from the previous year.