In 1935, Charles Lubin and his brother-in-law bought a small chain of neighborhood bakeries in Chicago called Community Bake Shops. Over the next 14 years, he expanded his business while ruminating on the idea of mass marketing a fresh cheesecake or coffee cake to food stores over a large area.
In 1949, he parted ways with his brother-in-law and named his first product, a cream cheesecake, after his 8-year-old daughter, Sara Lee. Mr. Lubin decided to change the name of the business as well, and the Kitchens of Sara Lee began distributing cheesecakes to area restaurants with one delivery truck.
Advertising began in 1951 and was initially handled by Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample. That relationship lasted just a few months, however, before the account was moved to Ivan Hill Inc. That same year, Mr. Lubin introduced two other products that became synonymous with the name Sara Lee: All Butter Pound Cake and All Butter Pecan Coffee Cake. Sales that year reached $400,000, and Mr. Lubin reinvested 25% of that in advertising.
In 1952, a buyer from Texas was impressed enough with Sara Lee's cakes to request a shipment be delivered to him in Dallas. Mr. Lubin set out to perfect the process of freezing the fresh cakes, thereby freeing him of the inherent geographic restrictions of the bakery market. Working with Ecko Products Co., Sara Lee developed aluminum pans in which the cakes could be baked, frozen and then shipped.
That type of packaging was a first in the food industry. In addition to cakes, entire meals could now be frozen and shipped in a single container, an innovation that soon yielded the TV dinner, introduced by Swanson in 1954. In 1954, ad spending reached about $250,000.
Mr. Lubin also showed a penchant for the spectacular, setting up a mammoth billboard on Chicago's Michigan Avenue that featured a three-dimensional slice of coffee cake measuring 27 feet by 14 feet. He sent 100 frozen cakes to the U.S. Senate during a filibuster.
By 1955, Sara Lee had extended its distribution from coast to coast. The following year, Consolidated Foods Corp. purchased Kitchens of Sara Lee for $2.7 million. That year, Sara Lee spent $850,000 on advertising. In addition, Ivan Hill Inc. became the Chicago office of Cunningham & Walsh, which continued to handle the Sara Lee business.
Sara Lee's marketing strategy continued to focus on taste and the quality of its ingredients. In 1955, the company's cakes sold for 79?, about twice the price of rival products. Advertising touted the number of pecans on top of a Sara Lee coffee cake or the fact that Sara Lee used only butter as a shortening (a quarter-pound in each coffee cake). Butter in particular became an integral part of Sara Lee's image. In 1961, an intensive ad campaign was structured around the tagline, "Sara Lee cakes?they're all better because they're all butter."
In July 1961, Ivan Hill and three other partners purchased the Chicago office of C&W and opened as Hill, Rogers, Mason & Scott, keeping the $2 million Sara Lee account, which constituted about half its $5 million in billings. In 1963, Sara moved its $2.5 million account to Foote, Cone & Belding and added North Advertising to its agency roster to handle frozen dinners, new products and test market efforts. Mr. Lubin retired in 1965.
In April 1966, Edward H. Weiss & Co. succeeded North Advertising, starting out on a line of frozen prepared dinners. And in October 1967, Sara Lee's $3 million account moved from FCB to Doyle Dane Bernbach.
"Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee"
In 1968, DDB provided Sara Lee with its most memorable tagline and jingle. "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" appeared in print ads and TV and radio spots, as well as on Sara Lee delivery trucks. The simple but grammatically skewed line accompanied advertising that positioned the product as an everyday treat to help consumers get through their day.
Despite that memorable campaign, in October 1972 Kitchens of Sara Lee again moved its account, this time to Tatham, Laird & Kudner. In June 1973, TLK lost the bakery goods account to Benton & Bowles but retained the frozen entree line. A conflict had been cited because Tatham was also the agency for Libby, McNeil & Libby, a company related to Stouffer Foods, a Sara Lee rival. Tatham lost the frozen entree business in 1975 when Sara Lee pulled the line off the market.
In 1977, Sara Lee introduced Light & Luscious frozen cakes. The product claimed to have one-third fewer calories and no artificial sweeteners. Sara Lee spent $4.8 million in measured media in 1978.
Ad spending waned in the late 1970s and dropped precipitously in 1980 to $900,000, as FCB regained the Sara Lee account that year. The frozen baked goods market underwent considerable erosion in the early 1980s owing to competition from fresh baked goods such as Warner-Lambert's Entenmann's products. Sara Lee increased it ad budget to $5 million, using testimony from consumers who said they preferred a Sara Lee cake to one in a "generic" package, easily identified as Entenmann's.
The line also suffered from its wholesome image, which had its appeal in the 1950s and '60s, but became detrimental in the 1980s when consumers began to seek lighter, low-fat products. Sara Lee's marketing was undermined by the rich, heavy image of the product that lingered in the minds of its customers, many of whom recalled the baked goods of their childhood.
In 1985, Consolidated Foods Corp. changed its name to Sara Lee Corp.
FCB, believing it was on course for a conflict of interest between Sara Lee and its larger Kraft account, resigned the $5.6 million account in 1986. Chiat/Day picked up the Sara Lee business, which increased that year to $9.4 million, in part to back the introduction of Bagel Time frozen bagels. One of Chiat/Day's first assignments was to update the old "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" theme. It chose jazz artists Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau to contemporize the theme.
Mr. Lubin died in July 1988 at the age of 84. As part of an overall consolidation of agencies within Sara Lee Corp., Lintas: USA took over advertising for the Sara Lee bakery lines in 1990.
Fat-free feeding frenzy
The early 1990s saw consumers swept up in a frenzy for fat-free foods. Increasingly, Sara Lee's products became single-serving desserts, with less fat and sugar than their predecessors. In 1992, Kellogg Co.'s Mrs. Smith's Frozen Foods Co. surpassed Sara Lee for leadership in the $1.1 billion frozen baked goods market and for the first time Sara Lee became the No. 2 U.S. baker.
In October 1996, the Sara Lee bakery account returned to FCB (which had in the meantime become FCB Worldwide). In 1998, Sarah Lee unleashed its first umbrella ad campaign in almost a decade, themed, "Add some delicious to your life."
Sara Lee had slipped to the No. 3 position in the $380 million frozen desserts market by then, behind Pillsbury Co. and Pepperidge Farm. In 1999, Sara Lee's media ad spending through FCB Worldwide was estimated at $16 million.
The "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" tagline was dusted off once again in 2000, supporting the introduction of Calzone Creations frozen entrees and Sara Lee Cake Bites. In 2001, Sara Lee acquired St. Louis-based Earthgrains Co., nearly quadrupling the size of its bakery division sales from $900 million to $3.4 billion. Subsequently, the company renamed the bakery unit Sara Lee Bakery Group and consolidated its estimated $30 million account at Publicis in Mid America, Dallas, a unit of Publicis Groupe and a longtime agency for Earthgrains.
In early 2002, Sara Lee consolidated its various meats businesses, including Ballpark, Hillshire Farm and Jimmy Dean, into a new Sara Lee Foods unit based in Cincinnati as part of CEO Steve McMillan?s mandate to centralize efforts and ramp-up marketing. To that end, Mr. McMillan named Lee Chaden to the new post of exec VP-global marketing and sales in April 2002.
By early 2004, the company had consolidated its $200 million media strategy, planning and buying for U.S. brands with Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, shifted deli and bakery brands under the Sara Lee banner to Publicis in Mid America among other agency shifts, and keyed in on top ?strategic investment? brands against which it would spend most heavily.
For 2001, Sara Lee Corp.'s food division had sales of $5.1 million, down 3.1% over the previous year.