If you’re like most people who have chewed Spearmint or Juicy Fruit gum over the past few decades, you would think that Wrigley’s main focus has always been on making and selling gum. After all, William Wrigley Jr.’s company is well-known for being the world’s biggest gum manufacturer.
Its (g)umbrella includes a plethora of brands, including Orbit, 5, Extra, and Winterfresh, among many others. William Wrigley Jr.’s astute marketing and sales tactics laid the groundwork for the Wrigley we know today, but the road to get there was long and convoluted.
While growing up in Philadelphia in the late 1860s, Wrigley was known for being a bit of a mischievous and defiant young man. He was assigned to work in his father’s soap business after escaping from home and being expelled from school upon his return. At the juvenile age of thirteen, Wrigley had already escaped the monotony of stirring the soap vats and was working as a salesman for his father’s soap company.
After finding success as a salesperson, Wrigley showed an aptitude for promoting and marketing (a real “son of the soapbox”) that would go on to become famous when he established his own company, William Wrigley Jr. Company, in Chicago in 1891.
According to most sources, he started his now-famous enterprise with just $32. Regardless of the veracity of that claim, Wrigley’s website states that he received a $5,000 (equivalent to over $130,000 today) payment from his uncle to assist in the startup of his new business.
That Company Wasn’t Making Gum
At first, Wrigley focused on selling Wrigley’s Scouring Soap, the soap his father had made. However, he impacted his future in a significant way by adding a novel twist that exemplified a strategy. Merchants were reluctant to carry Wrigley’s goods because of the slim profit margins, so he devised a scheme to entice them with freebies. From baking powder to umbrellas, these presents covered the gamut. It was hardly surprising that sales skyrocketed since baking powder was an integral ingredient of the new cake-making techniques that emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century.
After finding great success with their free baking powder, Wrigley shifted their focus from soap to baking powder, but they kept giving out freebies. This time, it was gum that came in a baking powder package. The gum was quickly becoming more popular than the baking powder.
Adaptable as ever, Wrigley shifted their focus from baking powder to their now-famous chewing gum. Zeno Company made the gum that Wrigley sold in the 1890s. To make the gum stand apart from the crowd, Wrigley suggested that Zeno utilize chicle rather than the more conventional paraffin and spruce.
Then his attention shifted to finding ways to make chewing gum more appealing to a younger audience. Starting with Vassar and Lotta gum, Wrigley then introduced Juicy Fruit, a sweet and fruity taste, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Today, Juicy Fruit is still one of the most famous brands in chewing gum. (Refer to: Does Juicy Fruit Contain Fruit?) After some time had passed, he unveiled Wrigley’s Spearmint.
William Wrigley wore his promoter hat with gusto for the remainder of the decade and into the 20th century, making multiple cross-country trips. Still, he kept up the premium offers, which included gum in addition to things like lanterns, pocket knives, fishing gear, and measuring scales. Recognizing that customers often made impulsive purchases, he also suggested a location for gum display cases that is still widely used today: next to the checkout desk. Merchants agreed.
While rival gum producers were slashing prices in 1907 due to the country’s economic crisis, Wrigley staked his then-infancy business on a daring gamble, mortgaging everything he owned and spending $250,000 (equivalent to around $6.2 million today) on advertising. He used this as a launching pad to take his company to the national stage. After the advertising blitz, Wrigley Spearmint’s sales alone increased to over $1 million per year, while his competitors’ sales remained flat. The overall increase in the company’s sales was as high as three million dollars, or over $75 million in today’s dollars, up from $170,000.
That Wasn’t All Wrigley Did
He became one of the country’s leading advertisers in 1915 after purchasing Zeno in 1911. But he wasn’t limiting himself to the more conventional methods of promoting. For example, Wrigley sent complimentary gum to every address in US telephone directories during a massive marketing and sales frenzy. In subsequent years, he continued this practice by giving each child a pack of gum on their second birthday.
Approximately 7 million households received Wrigley gum in 1919, and over 1.5 million in 1915, with the newly launched Doublemint flavor included. Wrigley also engaged writers in 1915 to rework Mother Goose rhymes for advertising Wrigley’s gum; the company ended up giving away 14 million copies of the revised book. (For those who are interested, see: Who Was the Actual Mother Goose?)
In the same year, Wrigley decided to take the company public so he could provide stock to his workers. In 1925, Wrigley handed up the president to his son Philip and became chairman of the board. He died in 1932 at the age of 70, with an estimated net worth of $34 million, or roughly $582 million today.
- Before his soap and gum empire, Wrigley faced setbacks. He initially sold soap in El Paso, Texas, but faced resistance due to the competition. Undeterred, he turned to selling baking powder, offering free chewing gum as an incentive, unknowingly paving the path for his future success in the gum industry.
- Wrigley was a marketing maverick. His strategies, such as placing gum at checkout counters, offering free gum with various products, and gifting it to children, were groundbreaking for that era and significantly contributed to his brand’s popularity.
- While he didn’t invent chewing gum, Wrigley revolutionized its ingredients. He advocated for using chicle, a natural gum base obtained from Sapodilla trees, which replaced the traditional paraffin and spruce. This ingredient change contributed to the unique flavors of his gum brands.
- Apart from his business ventures, Wrigley had a passion for music. He invested in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and supported various musical endeavors in Chicago, showcasing his interest in cultural development beyond the commercial realm.
- Beyond gum, Wrigley had a significant impact on real estate. He invested heavily in Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, transforming it into a resort destination and enhancing its infrastructure, including building the iconic Catalina Casino.
- Wrigley Field, the iconic baseball stadium in Chicago, was named after William Wrigley Jr. His ownership of the Chicago Cubs and his efforts to modernize and develop the stadium solidified his legacy in the sports world.
- Wrigley was actively involved in philanthropy, supporting various charitable causes and initiatives. His contributions extended to educational institutions, cultural projects, and community development programs.
- Beyond business, Wrigley had a passion for horticulture. He was an avid gardener and had a deep interest in landscaping, evident in the beautification efforts on Santa Catalina Island.
- Wrigley’s marketing tactics were ahead of his time. He not only popularized gum through advertising but also sponsored radio programs and introduced unique promotional campaigns that significantly impacted consumer behavior.
- Under Wrigley’s leadership, the gum business expanded internationally, reaching diverse markets worldwide. His visionary approach towards globalization allowed Wrigley’s Gum to become a global household name.
Wrigley’s legacy reverberates through innovative giveaways, groundbreaking advertising, and a relentless pursuit of consumer engagement. Beyond gum, he cultivated cultural landscapes, supported arts, and pioneered philanthropic endeavors. His trailblazing techniques not only transformed industries but etched his name among the select few whose visionary ethos continues to shape modern marketing and entrepreneurial landscapes.