October 27, 2021 • John Haffey
We know them by heart: Ronco. Slapchop. OxyClean. ShamWow. Spend any time channel surfing during the late night or early morning hours, and infomercials are unavoidable. Low-budget production, grating hosts and tired gimmicks make these spots fodder for “SNL” skits and water cooler punchlines, and the average viewer wonders “Who would buy this stuff?”
But when you strip away the kitsch, these cheesy ploys get to the heart of what drives every marketing strategy today: the notion of telling a product’s story and engaging directly with an audience in a personal, authentic way. And for that, we can thank a once-small Midwestern company’s desire to help Americans eat more healthfully.
Known today for its high-performance blending appliances found in home and professional kitchens alike, Vitamix traces its roots to the early 1920s. In a time when the growing nation was shifting to the processed and mass-produced food culture still around today, founder William Grover “Papa” Barnard saw the need to swim against that current. Beginning first as a salesman of various kitchen tools and eventually opening a health foods store in downtown Cleveland during the late ’30s, Papa founded Vitamix on the desire to make living a healthy life through whole, natural foods accessible for all.
Comfortable on the traveling salesman circuit—where he had built a reputation for compelling, successful product demonstrations at World’s Fairs and the like—Papa realized that sticking with his longtime message didn’t need to mean turning his back on the times. In fact, he and his son Bill had engineered and produced an incredibly efficient and fast-selling blender for their Cleveland store. With this eye toward the future, the pair recognized that modern technology might allow them to spread the message of healthy eating and whole foods to an audience beyond any fair or exposition. How would this happen? The burgeoning technology that broadcast straight to the living rooms of consumers nationwide. We’re talking about television, of course.
In 1949, at Bill’s urging, Papa met with executives at WEWS station in Cleveland and purchased 30 minutes of airtime with the goal of performing one of his trademark demos live for the world to see. With a kitchen set in place, the newest blender model on the counter, and produce at the ready, cameras began rolling. The rest, as they say, is history.
During this first television spot, the phone at Vitamix rang off the hook. Over 400 viewers called that day, placing orders for “the most wonderful machines ever invented,” as Papa affectionately called the blender. Pulled in by his fun-loving, trustworthy demeanor and seeing the obvious benefits of the machine firsthand, those looking to live a healthier lifestyle jumped at the chance to buy a Vitamix blender of their own.
Beginning with that original commercial, what would later become known as the first infomercial, Vitamix revolutionized how businesses connect to their audiences in an authentic, personal way. What’s even more remarkable is how this demonstration nearly 75 years ago personifies the values and mission that still guide the company today.
Still a family-owned organization, Vitamix is celebrating its centennial in 2021. Drawing from the company’s past to set a course for its future, Jodi Berg, Ph.D., Vitamix President and CEO (and Papa’s great-granddaughter), has doubled down on the company’s ongoing commitment to health and whole foods. For the organization, these aren’t buzzwords—this is who they’ve been since day one. For example, the current Whole Begins Here campaign explores how this obsession with bettering lives through food and health is much more than just sharing recipes. It highlights the countless stories from legions of beloved Vitamix fans that provide personal examples of how these products have created a healthier, better world, one person and kitchen at a time.
So next time you’re channel surfing and come across an infomercial, think back to how we got here. Vitamix’ unshakable belief in its products, fueled by a deep commitment to healthy living, set a new standard for how businesses tell their stories today. And in the end, the results can be pretty darn tasty too.
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