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Laying It on Thick

Philadelphia Cream Cheese changes its marketing recipe

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Most dairy brands engaged in the day-to-day battle for survival in the refrigerated section only wish they had the problems that Philadelphia Cream Cheese has. After all, the soft white brick of cheese named after the City of Brotherly Love has prospered for nearly 90 years now. Making cream cheese is extremely difficult (the careful introduction of acid-secreting bacteria is what turns milk into a solid), and Kraft is said to keep its formulas sealed in a Chicago safe. But the brand has its routine down cold. So instinctively do shoppers reach for that gray-foil wrapper with the blue lettering that Kraft now enjoys a 70 percent market share—especially sweet, considering that Americans buy $800 million worth of cream cheese every year. Sure, people may feel guilty about eating cream cheese (33 percent of it is pure fat), but since when did guilt stop people from buying something?

As it turns out, however, things are not as easy as they may look for Philly Cream Cheese—at least not when it comes to the marketing. Think about it. When your core product is an emulsified cake of breakfast food that’s hung out on the end of a butter knife for decades, keeping the brand image fresh and interesting is no mean feat. But judging from the ads shown here, Kraft’s done a pretty good job of it, at least according to Rick Barrack, chief creative officer of New York branding firm CBX. While it’s easy to look at the contemporary image and spot all of the requisite cultural updates (butcher-block table, T-shirted father and son bonding, etc.), the real device that’s kept the brand current is more thematic than physical. “In the ‘50s ad, they were talking only about what the product has to offer,” Barrack said. “But they’ve moved from product attributes to product experience.” In other words, if all that used to matter was the brand’s quality, what matters now is the quality time that the brand makes possible.

When the ad at right appeared in the pages of McCall’s in 1958, food marketing was little more than an argument over quality. In this case, high-quality cream cheese as part of a proper, middle-class American breakfast. Those female hands? They belong to mother, who is, of course, making your breakfast for you. See it there, laid out nicely on the table? She’s even put a hard-boiled egg down beside the coffee. The language sells the Philly even better, assuring us that it’s “wholesome” (whatever that means) and will satisfy “sleepy morning appetites.” “The ad is just a reflection of the conventions of the times,” Barrack said. “Mom is responsible for setting the table and whatever helps her do it better will make her take notice. Philly Cream Cheese is playing right to that.”

But now look at what the same-old cheese is doing 54 years later. Gone is the goofy talk of wholesomeness, of satisfying hungry tummies. Safely able to presume that the cream cheese’s taste and quality are already a given for most consumers, Kraft has shifted the entire selling strategy from the food to the occasion surrounding it. Cream cheese isn’t what you smear on bread; it’s a conduit for connecting with your family. “Today the homemaker is time-starved, and that’s mirrored in this ad,” Barrack said. “Carving out time to spend with your loved ones is a challenge. Multitasking is the new norm—as evidenced by the father holding the paper while eating with his son.” And, of course, “it’s interesting that they’ve chosen a man to start with,” Barrack said.

But what’s most interesting in these two ads isn’t that they show how the rigid domestic norms of the 1950s have developed into the fast-paced, nontraditional free-for-all that is today’s home; it’s that they show how Philadelphia Cream Cheese has come along for the ride and still fits in.

You just might want to go lighter on that schmear. After all, the stuff is 33 percent fat.