The ‘Knead’ for Bread: Marketing Strategies from 1959

09 October 2020


I am a huge fan of bread: reading about it, baking it, eating it. It is fascinating and delicious. Bread making is becoming an increasingly popular hobby with the influence of TV baking shows (I’m looking at you, Great British Bake Off); growing awareness about food production; and more people staying at home in 2020 resulted in a nation possessed by banana bread and sourdough. Despite a home baking resurgence, we still often turn to a trusty supermarket sliced loaf – the convenience, the low cost, and the longevity of freshness have made the pre-packaged loaf a staple in many people’s shopping baskets for decades. The idiom “greatest thing since sliced bread” exists for a reason!

I am going to showcase a few highlights from a document which explores some interesting research into consumer attitudes to packaged white bread in 1959 and how attitudes and spending habits reflected changing consumer priorities.

This document from Adam Matthew’s Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965 is a “creative memorandum on consumer attitudes to white bread”. It is report which was prepared by the Institute for Motivational Research for the Winius-Brandon Company regarding a brand of packaged sliced white bread called Holsum.

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The report opens by discussing a paradox among consumers – there exists a strong emotional ideal of homemade bread but consumers are buying packaged bread because of its convenience and utility. However, according to the report, consumers do not want to simply be advertised the white packaged bread, they want to buy the white packaged bread but feel like it has all the benefits and pleasure of home-baked bread. The research conducted here tries to unpack this contradiction and suggest reasons for it and recommendations to the advertiser about how to market packaged bread. For example, one recommendation is to ‘establish the importance of providing a psychological replacement in ads and other promotion. Holsum might effectively exploit the substitute-appeal of toast in ways similar to this: “remember Grandmother’s freshly-baked bread, hot from the oven? That’s how delicious Holsum toast tastes.”

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The most interesting aspects of the report are the observations about ‘modern life’ and how the advertiser must understand the priorities and the psychologies of the modern person.

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

We see in the extract above the importance of understanding the difficulties of the modern housewife in 1959, who may be scrutinised on her decisions as a consumer about which bread to buy and to feed to her family, and how this will affect how the advertiser choses to promote Holsum bread.

Another interesting example given is on the perceived status of white bread and the psychological aspect of making consumer choices. It was observed in the report that lower income groups perceive white bread as “the rich man’s bread” whereas upper income groups who only a few generations ago consumed white bread almost exclusively were now demonstrating a preference for bread with a “coarser texture, strong flavour and aroma, and more uneven shape” and this new preference was again beginning to trickle down to lower and middle income groups. Here we can see another challenge for Holsum bread in grappling with consumer attitudes.

This document shows the rich and interesting content to be found within market research reports as historical sources. They can show fascinating consumer research and ‘behind the scenes’ planning and marketing strategies, as well as perceptions about ‘modern life’ and about different demographics. Adam Matthew’s Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965 is full of documents which provide a unique insight into the American consumer boom of the mid-20th century through access to the complete market research reports of Ernest Dichter, the era’s foremost consumer analyst, market research pioneer and widely-recognised ‘father’ of Motivational Research.

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About the Author

Emma Ball

Emma Ball

I joined the Development team at Adam Matthew in September 2018 and have worked on a range of exciting new projects. My background lies in History and my main academic interests are gender and women's history and the histories of social and political movements.