Shelf life

The three-part series ‘Brands That Make Billions’ chronicles how three consumer products – bottled water, cold cereal and yogurt – evolved from obscurity to necessity.

October 28, 2011 21:59
3 minute read.
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Special K 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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As I was channel surfing the other day, looking for something interesting to watch, I chanced upon a program on Channel 8 that I had usually flicked past. I don’t know what it was that caught my attention this time, but I’m so glad it did, as Brands That Make Billions turned out to be an utterly fascinating program. In fact, it’s a three-part documentary, and each part is equally intriguing.

A BBC Open University co-production that they call The Foods That Make Billions, the series traces the history of three consumer products that have become so much a part of our daily lives that it’s hard to image a time when bottled water, cold cereal and yogurt didn’t line our supermarket shelves. And not just that – the series takes us back to a time when we didn’t have supermarkets, either.

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In the episode entitled “Liquid Gold,” the segment explores how bottled water has expanded from a mere trickle to one of the largest inundations in the modern food and beverage industry. Starting with Evian in France, industry experts explain how mineral water became popular and scores of local and international brands began to flood the global markets with bottles of spring water, sparkling water and flavored water.

They also explain the concept of added value, whereby manufacturers append additional benefits to a product. So with a basic item like water, perceived properties such as purity, convenience, health and lifestyle become elements that consumers are willing to pay extra for.

From a marketing perspective, what a brilliant plan it was to get millions of people to buy and lug home bottles of a commodity they had been drinking for free from their own taps.

The episode entitled “The Age of Plenty” deals with the phenomenon of cereal in a box. It all started with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and catapulted to the hundreds of cereal brands and varieties we see today. It traces how, after World War II, the traditional English family hot breakfast of eggs and toast shifted to the convenient morning meal of cold cereal and milk. The highly sweetened cereals for children were soon accompanied by whole grain and granola products for adults. And when an industry executive saw his Swiss au pair adding fruit and nuts to her cereal one morning, the production of cold cereal with raisins, nuts and tropical fruit was initiated.

Putting little prizes in the box was another industry innovation, which had kids around the world digging into the cereal box before digging into the cereal bowl.

In the third episode, “Pots of Gold,” we see how yogurt came on the scene. First produced in Japan as a brand called Yakult, yogurt was introduced to Britain with a brand called Ski. Designed to evoke the feeling of health, well-being and the great outdoors, Ski was soon in fierce competition with a host of other brands that were jockeying for position in dairy cases worldwide. Flavorings, fruit, jams and granola were added to the little plastic containers of the bacterial milk product, and the industry was off and running.

With a small addition to the container, the industry insiders explain, the yogurt industry turned another corner, so to speak. By adding a separate little corner with jam in it, which you flip into the yogurt once the whole container is opened, the manufacturers added yet another innovation that consumers were willing to pay for.

The series also explains how the advent of the supermarket dramatically changed the nature of the food and beverage industry and how brand loyalty has stood companies in good stead.

If you like Mad Men, you will enjoy this series. While the former is a fictionalized drama series based on how the ad men of Madison Avenue worked their commercial magic in the 1960s, Brands That Make Billions is the real deal. It chronicles how manufacturers and advertisers have worked together to perform sheer alchemy, turning three basic raw materials into gold.

So next time you’re at the supermarket, take a good look at some of the brands we all helped to make billions.

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