Monday, August 7, 2023

The Betty Crocker Legacy: A Century of the Homemaker’s Creed

                                 Betty Crocker portraits 1936 – 1996                       


This year marks the 150th anniversary of General Mills in Minneapolis, whose face since 1921 was that of the archetypal homemaker, Betty Crocker. 

Betty Crocker took shape after Gold Medal Flour ran a contest in the Saturday Evening Post with a jigsaw puzzle.  Along with the puzzle solutions, entries included questions from home cooks asking for baking advice.  Betty was created to provide answers from the staff of the Gold Medal test kitchen.  William Crocker was the popular company director who inspired the surname. Betty is an informal family-style name, but still traditional (nickname for Elizabeth, with Hebrew and English roots).  The World War II resonance (like movie headliners Bette Davis and Betty Grable) made a good naming level for a close family advisor in the kitchen that became a household name.


The interaction with the baking public was an early example of social media, sampling the public (now called crowd sourcing) as a way to do market research on women’s issues in cooking, and using that consumer input as the basis for creating the beloved advisor.   Answering letters was already a tool of the company’s public relations department, but generating a completely new character was innovative marketing genius.  New to the airwaves, the first radio cooking show was the “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” on a Minneapolis station.  Today we would go to You Tube; in 1924, there was no television. Instead, families and friends gathered around their radios and, yes, because we intuitively look toward the source of someone speaking, they actually watched the radio when important news came on.


By the late 1940s Betty became one of the earliest brand icons on television.  Women after World War II had married in unprecedented numbers. With their husbands’ benefits from GI Bill, they could move into their own homes at an age unheard of before the war. Radio and later television, replaced their mothers as a resource for advice on how to manage the home and particularly the kitchen. What was called “Home Economics” (cooking, budgeting, and sewing your own clothes, among other skills) was still being taught in high schools well into the late 1960s.


Betty Crocker was already a star presence from her radio days. According to Fortune magazine, by 1945 she was the best-loved female figure after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A considerable accomplishment for someone who didn’t really exist. She filled a gap in the homemaking pantheon.  Preparing dishes using packaged mixes was still not the norm (compared to cooking from scratch) and Betty was the link, informing the nation of the DIY aspects of processed and packaged recipes.


For young mothers operating on their own often very distant from their origin families, she was the trusted home-wise senior female always ready with moral support as well as mastery of how modern cooking operated.  This was especially vital during World War II, when rationing dominated the Homefront and ingredients were limited, lower-quality, or nonexistent.


General Mills produced a guidebook in 1945 called Our Nation’s Rations to help customers cope.  As a wisdom figure on a par with Walter Cronkite (“The most trusted man in America”), Dale Carnegie, or Eleanor Roosevelt, she emerged from the ranks of American wisdom heroes (embodied first by Benjamin Franklin).  These are practical problem-solvers with grace and integrity whose positive outlook is won through experience and shared with a broad public.


The Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book from 1950 is a perennial best-seller over seventy years later.  “The Homemaker’s Creed,” about the pride and talents of making the ideal home for the family, came out during wartime in 1944—just as women were being encouraged to return to the kitchen from the wartime factories where so many had been working.  The Creed pledge [of the Home Legion], suitable for signing, begins with “I believe homemaking is a noble and challenging career….an art requiring many different skills and the best of my efforts, my abilities, and my thinking.”  It was co-signed by Betty Crocker as the icon of American homemaking.   


Since her invention in 1921, she’s been gradually replaced by the secondary icon, the red cooking spoon, not a human icon with which anyone can identify.  Brand icons have two basic roles: they can either represent the product, or the product user.  Over the decades, after the 1960s, Betty’s image was steadily adapted to look younger and more cosmopolitan, as if she represented the consumer rather than the virtues of the product line itself.  The value proposition represented by Betty was rather the young grandmother with authority in the kitchen who knows what her customers want and the techniques to get them there.  She embodied authority and how-to inherent in the product.  A catch-phrase for her talents was “You can do it, and Betty can help you.” General Mills confused the two roles of the icon, meaning the Crocker image became less and less relevant for consumers when they saw a younger, less authoritative version.


Was Betty Crocker a real person?                                                                                                                                  


Not just one person, but a composite of several females originally drawn from the ranks of Gold Medal Home Service personnel.  For the 80s revision, 75 separate photos were aggregated in a single image.  The seven portraits from the 30s to the 90s all show closely ranging features and coloring, looking like female relatives (much as Disney animated princesses could be cousins).  In this way, the Crocker image was an early version of hyperreality applied to portraiture.  But that image is responded to as a living person: an adaptable, far-sighted, consistent, in-control figure inspiring trust and confidence. 


The Crocker image has had amazing cultural value – among the top 20 most recognizable images in the world (topped by the leading corporate symbol of Mickey Mouse).  Through seven transformations, from 1936 to 1996, she maintained her recognizable middle-American “ageless 32” image—in fact, she looks progressively younger in each, and by the mid-90s, has acquired a pan-ethnic olive complexion. In our research on the Crocker image, we found one consumer commenting that “the final image is no longer Betty Crocker, but Betty Rodriguez married to a Crocker.”


General Mills did not understand or appreciate that their customers did not want to BE Betty Crocker. They wanted Betty Crocker working for them in the kitchen. They were not identifying with the icon, but with the competence she represented – her skill as a baker who could turn out a perfect result every time.


This was the value center. It is an important distinction in marketing.  Companies are always looking for ways to update their images—however, dropping the persona of Betty wasn’t the way to do this (just as New Coke discovered in beverages). Companies often tire of their own images because they see them every day. They get inured to them, thinking them too old-fashioned and time-worn.  In fact, that is often their true value—think of the preppy themeing of Abercrombie and Fitch or Ralph Lauren.  These fashion lines show lasting profitability for their references to classic design, time-tested as trustworthy. In music, the late Tony Bennett trusted his faith in the classic American songbook that made him a lead performer well into his 80s.


After a century in media, Betty Crocker had become a fully vested American symbol of family, hearth, and home that many generations still treasure and look up to.  Her image is solidly emblematic of the middle-class, productivity, and women as homemakers. These are values steadily central to middle-class aspiration. To the company, Betty’s image began to recede as a symbol invested with the World War II generation, one that has now almost totally passed away.  Not its influence, however.


But Betty represented a stable and reliable universe, one on which you could depend. Consumers could rely on media figures not to make rash or selfish decisions, to hold the right values, to be principled and rational, and to speak with the voice of reason and moral authority around home and family. Most of all, despite her image updates, she presented constancy; you knew what you were going to get every time. Betty would never let you down.  We still need such icons in our lives—now more than ever. 


Photo: Pixabay