• 07 Dec 1999
  • Research & Ideas

Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century

H.J. Heinz founder Henry Heinz developed sophisticated brand-building strategies without the advantages of modern economic analytic technique, data and theory. HBS Professor Nancy F. Koehn shows how in this excerpt from her Business History Review article "Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century."
by Nancy F. Koehn

Today we might point to Heinz and Noble's skill in exploiting economies of scope, in developing additional goods that utilized existing inputs and organizational capabilities. 48 But neither man thought in theoretical terms about what he was doing. Like other entrepreneurs at other times, they were working to expand a fledgling business operating in a new, as yet largely undefined, market. Heinz and Noble believed that they had no time to lose. To make the most of the opportunity they saw before them, they would have to use their limited financial resources and more ample creativity as efficiently as possible. Increasing the company's product line was a potentially quick, inexpensive way to shape a nascent market for processed food.

It was also a means, Heinz reasoned, of building the brand. In the 1870s, branding was a new commercial concept. 49 Before that time, as business historian Richard Tedlow has written, "most manufacturers were unknown to the people who bought their products." 50 Heinz would not have used the words "brand creation" to describe his initiatives. This term is a product of the mid-twentieth century. But the entrepreneur understood the strategic rationale of branding and its importance to competing effectively on the demand side of the economy. In a young market, he realized, consumers had to be able to identify a particular product's source, functional attributes, and perceived quality relative to rival goods. Customers also needed to be made to appreciate the intangible aspects of a good—the associations and expectations that they attached to it.

Heinz knew from selling bottled horseradish that men and women would not buy a completely new product, especially a good they could make themselves, unless its quality was assured. Through careful packaging, unadulterated ingredients, and savvy salesmanship, Heinz and later Heinz & Noble had provided such assurance. Grocers, wholesalers, and their customers—Heinz's end users—now associated the anchor symbol with superior horseradish, manufactured outside the home. "The brand of the Anchor Pickle and Vinegar Works," a business writer noted at the time, "is known to consumers throughout the country as a guarantee of a first-class quality of goods." 51

Heinz hoped to extend this brand association to other related goods. He suspected that the potential demand for pure, savory condiments and sauces was enormous. In thinking through the possible appeal of his offerings, Heinz had no quantitative information on contemporary purchasing power. He did not know in the 1870s that real per capita incomes would grow by an annual average of more than 2 percent for the next two decades; these statistics are the products of modern economic analysis. 52

Heinz Preserved Sweet Onions and Pearl Onions 1910
Heinz Preserved Sweet
Onions and Pearl Onions used
in a 1910 company publication

But the young entrepreneur had done business in a number of cities on the eastern seaboard and in the Midwest. He had seen firsthand how swiftly places such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, were growing. In these and other cities, he could observe the effects of accelerating industrialization: the emergence of new enterprises and occupations, the coincidence of great wealth with urban poverty, and the appearance of novel consumer goods—ready-made shirts, watches, Japanned fans, celluloid baby rattles, Swiss buttermilk soap, and much more. Heinz could also sense that the pace of urban life was quickening, spurred on by transportation and communications improvements. 53

These changes augured well for Heinz's products and brand. Standardized, branded condiments, the entrepreneur realized, would be affordable to large numbers of urban Americans. These goods would also be appealing. As cities expanded, fewer households had access to their own food supplies: the family cow or garden. Many consumers in the city, Heinz believed, might turn to mass-produced foods, such as canned soups, packaged meat, and condiments. Not only would Heinz's products save women time and energy, they would also enhance the flavors of other foods. Horseradish, pickles, and celery sauce were already popular with German and English-origin peoples. Pickles were also important in Jewish cuisine. 54

portrait of Henry Heinz
Henry Heinz, 1880.

The young businessman hoped to develop a larger market for his products. In the early 1870s, he saw an important opportunity to do this. Most existing canneries and condiment manufacturers were small enterprises that sold their products locally. From Heinz's perspective, these companies had not yet begun to tap the possibilities of a broad national market. By concentrating initially on growing cities, he intended to expand his young business westward across the country.

Commercial traffic in prepared foods was not new to the late nineteenth century. Rural consumers had long bartered butter, eggs, horseradish, and other foodstuffs with storekeepers in exchange for sugar, coffee, and other items that could not be made at home. 55 Retailers used these in-kind payments as capital, reselling them to other store customers or trading them to urban wholesalers and jobbers for needed supplies. Bartering reduced storekeepers' dependence on currency. It also created informal distribution networks for locally produced goods. For instance, Philadelphia consumers could often find butter at their local grocers. These and other such products were made by farm households in Devon, Berwyn, and other surrounding areas. Although these foodstuffs bore no name or other information, urban retailers could generally vouch for their quality.

Heinz hoped to convince households and storekeepers that Anchor products were of better quality and more reliable than competing goods. He knew many people, including retailers, did not trust bottled food. Its taste was not consistent and it frequently spoiled. In 1870, he did not have a laboratory in which to analyze the content of his own or other offerings. The science of nutrition began to develop in the 1890s; the presence of vitamins in food and the relationship between diet and disease are twentieth-century discoveries. But as he and his partner expanded their business in the early 1870s, Heinz made an important strategic bet on potential consumer attitudes toward processed food. He was fairly confident that a "wide market awaited the manufacturer of food products who set purity and quality above everything else in their preparation. 56