How Kool-Aid, a 90-Year-Old Summertime Icon, Has Stayed So Popular for So Long

Fruity, fun and affordable since the Great Depression

Kool-Aid’s smiling pitcher mascot debuted in 1954 and, by the 1970s, had become a character. Raquel Beauchamp

When Corey Stutte was campaigning to be the mayor of Hastings, Neb., he knew he’d have to march in parades and give out free stuff like candy. But last year, as the election neared, Stutte decided that a twist on this political routine was in order: Instead of handing out candy, he ordered his campaign workers to distribute packets of Kool-Aid instead.

Such a move would have been a head-scratcher in any other town in America, but not here. Hastings is the birthplace of Kool-Aid, which inventor Edwin Perkins concocted in a brick building downtown in 1927—today a revered local landmark. In Hastings, Stutte explained, “you learn about Kool-Aid in elementary school.”

The son of a pharmacist, Edwin Perkins (left inset) invented his drink powder in 1927, putting it on the market the following year. L. to r.: Kool-Aid’s low cost allowed it to flourish during the Great Depression; R&D innovations like Jammers have kept it current with changing tastes; the Kool-Aid stand has remained an entrepreneurial venture popular with kids everywhere.
Courtesy of Kool-Aid

Not that kids in the rest of America don’t learn about Kool-Aid anyway. The fruity, colorful drink mix is, 90 years after its debut, still an icon of summer. “We have a significant level of awareness,” said Andrew Louie, brand manager of refreshment beverages at parent Kraft. “The brand continues to be extremely popular, even though it’s over 50 years old.”

The reasons for that go beyond the predictable attributes of tarty flavors and trippy colors. Kool-Aid has plenty of competition in the beverage aisle nowadays, but it’s hard to beat its value: A single packet (priced as low as 29 cents at Kmart) makes two quarts of the drink, making Kool-Aid an obvious choice for budget-conscious families.

The flavor: One of Perkins’ original six varieties, cherry is still enormously popular, coming in at No. 5 on a recent Ranker poll of the best Kool-Aid flavors. The pitcher: A staple of early TV spots, the fat-bottomed Kool-Aid pitcher (complete with smiley face) got across the message that one packet made two quarts. The color: Watch out—Kool-Aid’s food dyes (Red 40 in this case) can leave intractable stains. Then again, Kool-Aid can also make some nice soft-colored tie dye shirts.
Raquel Beauchamp

And, in fact, Kool-Aid’s early popularity owed itself to this same value proposition. When the Great Depression hit just a year after Kool-Aid’s 1928 debut, Perkins cut the price from a dime to a nickel—turning the brand into the affordable, must-have treat it still is. Kraft’s R&D department has also done its part to keep Kool-Aid in step with the times, introducing ready-to-drink Jammers and reduced-sugar formulas of Kool-Aid Liquid, concentrates fans can mix together to customize their flavors.

But the most important ingredient in Kool-Aid’s longevity is probably its mascot, a smiling pitcher that debuted in 1954 and, by the 1970s, had morphed into a character that burst through the wall yelling “Oh, Yeaahh!” whenever thirsty kids summoned him. This campy, sheetrock-shattering routine remains so durable that Progressive Insurance cast Kool-Aid Man last year in spots for homeowners’ insurance.

The story of Kool-Aid Man begins in 1954 at the Chicago offices of Foote, Cone & Belding, where art director Marvin Potts—after watching his son draw faces on a steamed-up window—etched a smiley face onto a pitcher that anchored Kool-Aid’s advertising. In 1975, after Grey Advertising took over the Kool-Aid account, it turned the pitcher into an oversized mascot—one that’s been busting through walls and yelling “Oh, Yeaahh!” ever since.

The only sour taste in the Kool-Aid’s otherwise sweet saga is the ubiquitous phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”—shorthand for mindless indoctrination, and a notably mistaken reference to the 1978 mass suicide of the followers of cult leader Jim Jones. Jones’ poisoned potion was in fact knockoff brand Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid.

Fortunately, the unwarranted stigma hasn’t ruined the mood in Hastings, where Stutte won the election with 66.86 percent of the vote. Did handing out Kool-Aid help? “Well,” Stutte considered, “the kids certainly liked it.”

This story first appeared in the July 24, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.