The image below may throw you. It is a vintage ad for a bar of Wrigley’s soap. If you’re like me, you’ll immediately think of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the same Wrigley’s? Why, yes.
Wrigley’s Chewing Gum has an interesting history. William Wrigley Jr. was quite the salesman and an innovative marketer. He firmly believed in “premiums.” The customers buy one thing and you give them a premium gift.
Wrigley sold anything from soap to syrup, to baking soda, and finally, he hit it big with chewing gum. His customers wanted the gum more than they wanted the baking powder, just as they had wanted the baking powder more than the soap.
Originally, Wrigley contracted with Zeno Mfg. Co. to make gum to give away, but when demand skyrocketed, he went into the gum business, and soon became the leading gum brand, as we know it today.
The Pinterest pin below shows some very old packages of Wrigley’s chewing gum, with two that are labelled “Zeno,” including Pepsin gum and blood orange flavor. So, how in the world did the most successful chewing gum maker start out with soap?
William Wrigley Jr.’s father was a soap-maker in Philadelphia. Born in 1861, by the age of 10 William Jr. was selling his father’s soap on the streets. Even before that he earned money taking care of a horse, making fifty cents a month at the age of nine.
Tired of school, (he had been suspended multiple times) in 1872, he ran away to New York city, where he sold Newspapers and worked on two different sailing ships for a few weeks. He returned home only to be sent back to school, where his behavior soon got him kicked out for good. This time it was because he got the bright idea of decorating the school building’s nameplate with a pie. He didn’t just throw the pie, he was harder working than this. He had a friend hold him by the heels as he hung over the nameplate and did a thorough job of painting it with pie innards.
With no school, his father put him to work, this time on the factory floor, making soap. This was grueling work with 10-hour days for very little pay. He preferred being a salesman, and was finally able, in 1874, to talk his father into letting him return to selling soap. He did so not only in Pennsylvania but in New York as well, traveling in a horse-drawn wagon. He was very good at selling his father’s Mineral Scouring Soap.
At 18 he moved away to try to make a go of things by himself, heading for Colorado with a friend. After losing their tickets (and William’s hat) out of the train window, the two became stranded in Kansas City. William found work as a waiter in a restaurant and then later as a rubber stamp salesman. He returned back home with a set of new clothes and some presents for his parents and went back to selling soap.
In 1891, at the age of 30, William Jr. moved to Chicago. He had thirty-two dollars, and as he himself described it “my experience.” He rented an office and began trying to sell soap in Chicago. Things didn’t go that well until he decided to begin offering a premium with every box of soap he sold: an umbrella. He raised the price of the soap to ten cents, and therefore made a better profit. He used this model many more times, with varied success.
It was when he was selling baking powder that his ship really began to sail. He was offering chewing gum as a premium for every container of baking powder sold. He contracted with the Zeno Company for his gum. His customers wanted the gum more than the baking powder, so he concentrated on selling the gum and offered premiums with it, instead. For example, if a grocer ordered fifteen dollars worth of gum, he would give them a scale. He offered other similar premiums to grocers, concentrating on things that a grocer would like to have.
Meanwhile, he advertised his gum heavily. He even took advantage of the kinds of claims other gum makers were making about their product. For instance, since others were advertising gum as an aid to digestion, he sold his gum to restaurants to be displayed at the checkout counter, so that customers would see it after they had eaten and were paying their checks. He used billboards and other means and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise his gum. His initial efforts had little success, but once he committed enough money, $250,000, he saw how successful advertising could be and never looked back, pouring millions into getting his gum in front of the public, even when others were scaling back their advertising due to the poor economy. Much of Wrigley’s success was due to something the Coca-Cola company also knew: Never stop advertising, even in hard times, and no matter how successful you become.
Wrigley bought the Zeno Company in 1911 and consolidated it into his own gum-making William Wrigley, Jr. Company. Through the years, he introduced many flavors of gum, including Spearmint in 1899, a big success. He opened branches in New York City, Brooklyn, Toronto, Berlin, Frankfurt, and London.
He bought a controlling interest in the Chicago Cubs baseball team in 1916-1921, as well as buying the Los Angeles and Reading, Pennsylvania baseball teams. He purchased his own island, Santa Catalina, and developed it into a resort. He was also involved in banking, hotels, and mines. He also built one of the most famous Chicago skyscrapers, the Wrigley Building, which was completed in 1924. Unlike wealthy business-men, he did not plaster his name all over the building in huge letters. His name appeared in small letters only over the door, and you could easily have missed it.
William Jr.’s son, Philip Knight Wrigley (PK) had been his vice-president for years. He took over the company in 1925. PK was just as innovative, if not more so than his father and under his guidance, sales went from $23 million to $190 million in 1971.