I think our collective obsession with the TV show Mad Men has something to do with this idea.

I know I’m fascinated every time our dark antihero (or Peggy!) takes an object we’re indifferent to and suddenly gives it power over us. It’s fascinating, in part, because it shows that value is alarmingly subjective. Changing perception can radically alter an object’s worth. 

How radically? I’ve collected some extremes, marketing rebrands so powerful that they’ve drastically changed our social history.

They give us insight into the context, psychology, and ingredients of successful rebranding. Since, as marketers, it’s our job to position products just so in the minds of our audience, it makes sense to draw on the genius of marketing past. (Be prepared, though, for some evil genius as well as good.)

1) Let them eat potatoes

In the late 1500s, potatoes began to spread from Spain to the rest of Europe. However, people regarded them with great suspicion and disdain.

Despite the fact that potatoes could better feed his nation and lower the price of bread, Frederick the Great of Prussia found his subjects extremely unwilling to eat them.

Even a royal mandate to grow and eat potatoes was unilaterally ignored. (The town of Kolberg protested: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them.”)

So, Frederick rebranded. He planted a ‘royal’ field of potatoes and set up a heavy (but not too heavy) guard around them.

Nearby, peasants deduced that anything well-guarded must be of great value and soon enough there was a thriving black market for potatoes. Soon after this brilliant move, potatoes became a Prussian staple.

2) Why you crave bacon for breakfast

Bacon and eggs, is there a more quintessential breakfast? Well, there certainly was. In fact, people didn’t eat bacon at all a century ago in the States.

Bacon and eggs was the brainchild of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. (Side note: Bernays was one of the most prolific and impactful marketers in all of history. He literally invented ‘public relations.’ If you can spare the time, you’ll be happy you watched this documentary on him and other aspects of modern consumerism.) 

In the 1920s, Bernays ran a bacon campaign for the Beech-Nut Packing Company. After finding, through market research, that most Americans ate light breakfasts, he employed his agency’s internal doctor (yes, the standard for objectivity was low) to say that a heavier breakfast was a healthier option for the American public.

This dubious medical advice was deeply ingrained in the American consciousness after a successful press blitz, radically changing the nation’s diet. Here’s a clip of Bernays recalling that immensely successful campaign. 

3) Why cigarettes have that je ne sais quoi

 Although tobacco sales were booming in the 1920s, there was one thorn in the cigarette companies’ side: women.

Sales to women were dismal, since it was taboo and even illegal for women to smoke in certain areas. (As late as 1922, a woman from New York City was arrested for lighting a cigarette on the street.) So, who was big tobacco going to call? That’s right, Edward Bernays. 

Women had just won the right to vote, and Bernays used that to his advantage. He employed several debutantes and fashionable society women to smoke during a women’s rights parade.

They were instructed to tell the press that they were not smoking cigarettes, they were smoking ‘torches of freedom.’

The cigarettes became symbols of their equal standing with men. Suddenly infused with the allure of emancipation, cigarette sales to women began to soar.

4) A Veil on modernity

Around the time of WWI, Atatürk Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power in Turkey. He admired the democracy of Europe as progressive.

One of his desired reforms was to get Turkish women to stop wearing the hijab (veil) and enter the workforce. Rather than ban the veils outright, however, Atatürk took a sneakier tactic: he ordered that wearing them was compulsory…for courtesans, that is. 

Since women didn’t want to be associated with the profession, they quickly stopped wearing the veil.

Atatürk dramatically reduced the use of the veil in Turkish society by making them unfashionable, instigating massive cultural change without revolt.

5) How wristwatches became manly

There was a time when a man wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a wristwatch (anytime pre-1900s, that is). Wristwatches were a woman’s accessory. “I would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch,” one man allegedly quipped.

So how did we get to their modern status as a symbol of power and masculinity?

Although men wouldn’t wear them in pre-1900’s society, soldiers did wear them in wartime. Pocket watches were too cumbersome to carry into battle, so men wore wristwatches as it became more and more important to synchronize battle plans to the second in the 19th century.

The trick for watchmakers was to apply that prestige to everyday life. This was accomplished, at least in part, through testimonials. In 1901, this “unsolicited testimonial” was run by a watch and clock company: 

… I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3 ½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me.—Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.

As war heroes endorsed watches, they quickly lost their effeminate connotation. Now, of course, men’s watches are a billion dollar industry.

Society has changed, but has marketing?

You could make a compelling argument that what happened in the instances above could never happen with today’s savvy, and often cynical, consumer. It might be a good thing for society if that’s the case, since marketers have changed the world for evil as well as good. 

I don’t think, however, that the landscape is all that different. When it comes to marketing, it is still the case that brilliant lateral thinking gets results. And, as these TEDTalk speakers can attest, people haven’t changed that much either. (Rory Sutherland’s talk sparked several of the ideas in this post.)

As someone at a company that just changed up their brand, I spend a lot of time thinking…what makes this work? What causes change and makes it stick? Sometimes it’s as much important to look back as forwards.