Levy’s legendary ads: distinctiveness to drive penetration

I read a lovely little article about the legendary Levy's rye brand ad campaign, by Dave Trott on the Marketing Society blog. The campaign dates back to the 1960's, but shows how the oldies are sometimes the goodies when it comes to brand growth stories. The campaign helped Levy's become the biggest brand of rye brand in New York state and eventually the US, and is a great example of how driving penetration is key to growth.

Wind back to the Mad Men era of the early 60's. Whitney Ruben, of Rubens Bakery in Brooklyn, New York, is discussing how to increase sales of Levy's rye bread. The bread was mainly consumed by Jewish immigrants, and this usage was reflected in the media strategy. The brand ran ads in the New York Post because it had 80% Jewish readership.

One approach would have been to focus on existing users and brand fans, and get them to eat the bread more often.

But Bill Bernbach, of ad agency DDB, had a better idea.

He suggested the key was to widen the user base and drive penetration: "You need to appeal to a wider audience than just immigrants. We need to get to the people who haven't tried it yet". Yup. Bill had grasped the importance of driving penetration not frequency, 40 years before Byron Sharp wrote about this in his book "How Brands Grow".

Here's some of the smart things Ruben and Bernbach did next.

1. Target new users: the media strategy was changed, with adverts placed in the food sections of The World-Telegram and The Journal-American to get to a broader user base.

2. Be distinctive: for the 1960's the Levy's ads were highly distinctive featuring a range of different ethnic minorities. This might not seem that brave now, but it was at the time as Dave explains, "This was the Mad Men era of advertising, Everyone, in all the ads, aspired to be a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant). Men were only shown wearing suits and ties, women wore pinafores and had pony tails, and all the children were blonde and freckled."

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3. Embrace your brand truth: Bernbach suggested to embrace the brand's authenticity, not hide it, and re-name the brand. “We need to make it more ethnic, give it more credibility. We need to change the name to Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” As Dave explains, the effect of this was "Sewing the doubt that not all rye bread was “Real Jewish Rye”.

4. Less is more: The Levy's campaign is a great reminder of the need for poster ads in particular to be really simple. These ads are so beautifully single minded, and free of small print.

In conclusion, there is a lot to learn from this little story. The need to drive penetration through a distinctive expression of your brand truth.