Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • Vegemite is an iconic household brand, which is a result of the process of industrialisation of food in Australia.

  • As part of our food heritage, Vegemite is one of the Aussie food staples that helps to create a sense of identity of Australian cuisine.

  • Vegemite’s widespread popularity in Australia was due to a clever marketing strategy, positioning the product as a family health food.

By Michael Symons

The nation-building 1920s entrenched the industrial family and the commercial food supply. We discovered cornflakes at breakfast, eroding our claim to ‘meat three times a day’. We discovered snacks such as processed cheddar and ice-cream, and drank orange juice and cocoa. We sobered up, with 6 o’clock closing, hotel shut-downs and attempts at Prohibition. So nutritious Vegemite was entirely typical of the period, except for one irony: the spread that epitomised ‘family goodness’ was made from brewery waste.

Fred Walker had started in business in Melbourne in 1908, developing lines for export, for wartime rations and for the outback, including ‘Red Feather’ canned butter, canned dripping, potted cheese, camp pies and liver pastes. In 1919 Walker found another way to preserve nourishment, a beef extract like British Bovril, which was supplied from ranches in South America and Australia and was being sold here with the slogan ‘A “Little “Bovril” Keeps the Doctor Away’. Walker’s version was launched as Bonox, a big seller for decades.

The Carlton & United Brewery also launched an extract manufactured from its spread yeast called ‘Cubex’. It failed, and by February 1923 Fred Walker & Co. negotiated to buy the company spent yeast, from which to make a version of English Marmite. Fred Walker also appointed a 50-year-old chemist named C. P. Callister to the project. The country’s leading food technologist in the inter-war period started in a small room in a corner of Walker’s Albert Park factory, with a desk, a sink, an Oertling balance, some glassware and a few bottles of chemicals. In the center of the room was a very thin workbench, at which he developed what was known as by the end of the year as ‘Vegemite’. It is said the company initially considered calling it ‘Parwill’, in response to Marmite (‘Ma might’).

It was not a run-away success. However, Calllsiter came across the Kraft patent for processed cheese, which Walker secured in a visit to USA in August 1925. With the bowdlerised cheddar, the company’s total sales doubled in a year. More importantly, Walker’s local sales began to exceed exports, which had implications for the sales effort of other products. It is worth seeing how the company went about addicting us to Vegemite.

An early press advertisement described Vegemite as ‘the Vitamin vegetable paste for use in sandwich, soups, stews and gravies. It is full of vitamins and very nourishing’. To emphasis its benefit for growing children, the drawing depicted a boy in academic dress standing on a ladder and peering through a magnifying glass into a huge jar of the ‘World’s Wonder Food’, as it was subtitled. A girl, who was neither wearing an academic gown nor standing on a ladder, admired her man. Back in 1925, Callister had sent samples to London to be tested for vitamins. The benefits of vitamins were popular knowledge, but still vitamin B had not been differentiated into B1, B2, and so on. It was another eight years before the isolation of thiamine (B1), of which brown bread and Vegemite are excellent sources. It was also a long time before nutritionists became concerned about the overuse of salt – Choice reported in October 1981 that 10 per cent of Vegemite was salt.

Vegemite advertisement in the 1920s

In 1931 the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. engaged American advertising agency J. Walter Thomson, which had arrived in 1929 mainly to handle the General Motors account. In one early campaign, it enclosed with other Kraft products free gift coupons for Vegemite, the standard technique to get people to sample a still unfamiliar product and typical of the way in which Vegemite rode on a success on the back of the cheese marketing. In 1937 a limerick contest awarded prizes of Pontiac cars. Just before the war the company gained authorisation to advertise in the Australian Medical Journal, which became, according to a 1978 company document, ‘in effect, official endorsement of the product to the medical practitioners throughout Australia.’ While the armed services were purchasing Vegemite in 7 pound 8 once tins and half-once ration packs, the company took advertising space the explain its civilian rationing policy and to keep the consumers ‘aware of the product and its virtues.’

The postwar baby boom created a ‘huge market’s for which, in 1954, an agency employee composed the well-known ‘Happy Little Vegemites’ jingle. During the 1950s the company’s advertising ‘heavily under-score the medical and health authorities’ recognition and acceptance of Vegemite, positioning the product as a family health food.’ One theme was ‘Put Vegemite next to the pepper and salt whenever you set the table.’ Another strategy was to publish short essays about talented children, and this was extended in 1957 to a magazine and television campaign featuring the Sara Quads and Lucke Quads.

When the National Health and Medical Research council allegedly founded a vitamin B1 deficiency in the Australian diet, the agency took up a tough ‘Me starving my Family’ stance, warning that ‘even the best diet provided by the most conscientious mother could be lacking in vitamin B1’. In fact, the NHMRC concluded in 1959 that ‘excluding alcoholics’, the great majority of Australians received sufficient thiamine and many people consumed ‘unnecessary large amounts’ in the form of medicinal preparations. So alcoholics, rather than children, would have been more likely to benefit from this brewery waste product.

Demographics studies show that in 1960s the below-fives were not going to be as big a market as the 15-24s, so the strategy became ‘you had Vegemite when you were young, continue to have it during your teen years and into your adult years’. But such direct appeals provided ineffective, and sales only lifted substantially in 1969, when the agency decided to return to the ‘strategy that helped to make Vegemite a household name and helped put the product into 90 per cent of all Australian homes’: promoting the values of Vegemite for young children. Apparently the advertising for children also won the adults. From 1972 until 1977 the slogan was ‘pass the Vegemite please, Mum.’ In 1978 ‘Happy Little Vegemites’ nostalgia was tried, ‘to remind today’s mother of how good Vegemite was for them when they were children.’ And so processed and flavoured brewing waste nourished another generation.

With the product’s popularity, the company began over the years to use waste from molasses distillation and to grow its own yeast, but it still relied on spent brewer’s yeast. The company’s coyness about it was such that a pamphlet entitled ‘What is Vegemite?’, available in the late 1970s, said only that it derived from ‘yeast’, and a wall chart for science classes concealed its raw material, describing it as ‘Saccharomyces yeast’. In an age of ecological awareness, the use of a by-product that would otherwise have become an industrial pollutant should have been regarded as a point in favour of the beloved brown spread.

Fred Walker’s death in 1935 paved the way for Kraft’s total acquisition of the local operation and, with it, Vegemite. So the most Australian-seeming proprietary product, which once proudly bore the name Fred Walker & Co., became American. Fred Walker might be forgotten except that his name continues to be used on certain Kraft cheeses. His and Dr Callister’s product has become an Australian addiction, sometimes expatriates hunger for. It seems so Australian that, despite several attempts, Kraft has never been able to launch it successfully in any other country. It just happened to be introduced here at the right ‘family goodness’ moment. Introducing such a yeast extract would have been impossible in the USA between 1918 and 1933 because Prohibition made breweries illegal.

Image:

Advertising timeline. (n.d.). Vegemite. Retrieved from

https://www.vegemite.com.au/Heritage/Advertising-Timeline

Reference:

Symons, M. (1982). Vegemite. In One Continuous Picnic – A Gastronomic History of Australia (pp. 151-154). Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.