How does a brand remain a household name for a century?
Betty Crocker has a simple recipe: keep changing.
In October, the icon turned 100 years old and just completed its 100th holiday baking season. General Mills, the company that owns its image, intends to keep it relevant into another century by embracing more diverse cooks and bakers and finding new ways to reach them in their kitchens.
“Betty Crocker remains relevant as she and her product lines adapt to changing political, social and economic currents,” culinary anthropologist Pauline Adema wrote in the “American Icons” encyclopedia. “His tenacity in the American imagination – and in our kitchens – speaks to his timelessness as a fused icon of business and home.”
In 1921, Betty’s signature began to appear on reply letters to home bakers seeking cooking advice.
Then she got involved in radio shows, cookbooks, cake mixes and her own website.
In 2021, thousands of Instagram posts featuring photogenic baked goods were tagged #CallMeBettyCrocker.
“Betty has been associated with that pride and accomplishment in the kitchen,” said Maria Jaramillo, director of the Meals & Baking business unit at General Mills, which includes Betty Crocker. “How do we make sure that the next generations have this knowledge of how to cook, how to cook, so that it’s really inclusive for everyone?”
Marketing food to the widest audience possible, like Betty Crocker does, is increasingly difficult amid the “commodification” of many popular products, said Doug Jeske, president of Meyocks, a brand and marketing agency. .
Increasingly, marketers are using what’s called “mentor branding,” Leske said. It’s a way for the company to indulge customers by offering them more information, inspiration, and even advocacy.
“Of course, Betty Crocker was a mentor even before she was a product brand, so the folks at General Mills have been onto something for a long time,” Leske said.
In 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Co., a predecessor of General Mills, held a contest in the Saturday Evening Post promoting gold medal flour that inadvertently produced market research. Along with the puzzles being completed, letters poured in asking for cooking tips, and the company cooked up a character to answer them. “Betty” was chosen for her friendliness; “Crocker” was the last name of a retired board member.
And in 1924, Betty was given a voice – and later a variety of voices – with a daytime radio program. “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” debuted on WCCO (the station’s call sign named after its then-owner, Washburn-Crosby Co.). The show was picked up by NBC and would run for over two decades.
Betty was first officially personified beyond a voice and a signature: a painted portrait published in 1936 was the first of eight different faces of the brand over the next 60 years.
Throughout the Great Depression and the war years, Betty’s advice to bakers and homemakers increasingly focused on stretching limited food supplies. A free booklet has proven “a saving grace to many Americans, and its sound advice has won national recognition among nutritionists and social workers,” Susan Marks-Kerst wrote for Hennepin History magazine in 1999.
By this point, Betty Crocker’s popularity had inspired a number of other fictional spokespersons for rival companies, including Ann Pillsbury, Kay Kellogg and Frances Lee Barton of General Food. None were as tall as Betty. In 1945, Betty Crocker was named America’s second most famous woman after Eleanor Roosevelt.
“In part, it flourished because General Mills, unlike many other companies with living trademarks, recognized the value of its widely recognized personality and devoted considerable resources to promoting it,” wrote the culinary historian Laura Shapiro in a 2005 essay, “Betty Crocker and the Woman in the Kitchen.”
The short-lived “Betty Crocker Show” premiered on CBS in 1950, one of many programs to feature Adelaide Hawley Cumming as “First Lady of Food” for the next 15 years.
Also in 1950, “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book” aka “Betty Crocker Cookbook” aka “Big Red” was released. Millions of copies have been sold.
“It was the first time a cookbook had step-by-step instructions,” Jaramillo said. “Before, we learned to cook from generation to generation.”
Betty Crocker’s first product in grocery store aisles was a pea soup mix released in 1941, soon followed by cake mixes. In the late 1960s, Betty’s name began gracing the box of a trendy new toy credited with instilling a love of baking in a new generation: the Easy-Bake Oven.
She also received two portrait makeovers during this rapidly changing decade.
“Betty Crocker’s changing faces are a barometer of changing concepts of domesticity and women’s roles as housewives in 20th-century America,” wrote Adema, the culinary anthropologist.
As consumers continued to seek convenience, which had been one of the brand’s main selling points over the years, Betty Crocker’s Hamburger Helper was launched. Tuna Helper and Chicken Helper would follow, helping to establish a new food category: boxed dinner.
“With one pan, one pound of burger, and one packet, Hamburger Helper revolutionized diner,” General Mills wrote in a story for the brand now known as Helper.
Although widely associated with baking – and in particular the classic layer cake – Betty Crocker added a global flair with “Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook” from 1980. The following year came the release of Chinese and Mexican cookbooks .
Always on the cutting edge of technology, a number of Betty Crocker microwave cookbooks were also published during the decade as residential use of the appliance soared.
Betty expanded its reach to the World Wide Web in 1996 when bettycrocker.com was first registered. Early snapshots of the website from the Internet Archive show that while the images and functionality have improved over the years, the site’s goal has always been to help people in the kitchen with recipe ideas. and ways to contact Betty.
The updated final portrait of Betty Crocker was also released in 1996. It was painted from a computer-generated composite image of 75 women “of various backgrounds and ages who embody the characteristics of Betty Crocker,” the company said. company.
Betty continued to embrace digital media, with recipe software and an electronic cookbook released in the early years.
The use of Betty Crocker portraits was eventually phased out, as changing demographics were reflected in the changing messages.
“The baking and maker community is much more diverse right now. It would be impossible to portray that with a portrait,” Jaramillo said. “So now we’re using the iconic red spoon to be more inclusive and inviting.”
Betty has kept pace by adding smartphone apps and a full suite of social media accounts to connect with consumers. Bettycrocker.com remained one of the most visited food websites in a category filled with recipe blogs.
“What Betty Crocker does differently is whenever we come up with dish ideas, we make them foolproof,” Jaramillo said. “Even if you make a small mistake, everything will be fine.”
The pandemic has caused a massive increase in meals and baked goods at home, a trend that continues into Betty’s 101st year.
With the help of social media influencers and other modern tactics to reach consumers, Jaramillo said she’s confident new generations of cooks and bakers will embrace the brand.
“A lot of people have rediscovered the pleasure of cooking or have taken up baking,” she said. “As long as we continue to provide inspiration, we should be able to celebrate 200 years of Betty Crocker.”