For years, we have praised the pinnacle of human achievement with these words. But how did something as simple and practical as sliced bread become the measuring stick of innovation?
Human beings have produced and eaten bread for thousands of years, but sliced bread has only been around since 1928. In fewer than 100 years, it has become a mainstay on grocery shelves and in our homes. Since it was first introduced in July, we’re taking a look at the history of the invention that made sliced bread possible, and the marketing efforts that made it a success.
A slice of American history
Otto Rohwedder, a successful jeweler who owned three shops in St. Joseph, Missouri, would use his profits to invent new tools and machines. While speaking with his female customers, he noticed a common complaint: slicing bread was a pain (ha…see what we did there?).
At the time, bread was sold whole to preserve freshness, but Otto pondered the feasibility of selling bread pre-sliced. He recognized the need and the potential market for pre-sliced bread, so he did a little market research in the form of a questionnaire published in several large newspapers to determine an acceptable slice thickness.
The ad garnered about 30,000 responses, and in 1916, he sold his jewelry business and set to work.
The power of the press
After a fire destroyed his prototype and blueprints in 1917, it took Otto 10 years working as an investment and securities agent to support his family, rebuild his capital, and court investors. Finally, in 1927, he had a new prototype that worked better than the first and actually wrapped the sliced loaves in wax paper to help preserve freshness.
A year later, he filed a patent for his “single step bread-slicing machine” and helped found Mac-Roh Sales & Manufacturing to start production of the machine. He also got some media exposure that year in Modern Mechanics, which praised the innovation. Those early accolades from a reputable media source were critical for landing his first customer.
At five feet wide and three feet high, the machine was thought by many to be too cumbersome for daily bread production. After some convincing, Otto’s friend, Frank Bench, agreed to purchase one of the machines for his Chillicothe-based bakery, which was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Co. branded the first commercially sliced bread ‘Kleen Maid’, and enjoyed immediate success. Within two weeks, Bench’s bread sales increased by 2,000 percent.
The press praised the product, saying that the slices that were cleaner and more precise than anything one could get from cutting with a knife. More coverage in a 1930 issue of New South Baker, a trade journal for the baking industry, outlined the sure-fire success a baker would enjoy with one of Otto’s machines.
One company would heed that advice and introduce the market to a staple for generations to come.
Capitalizing on convenience
Enjoying success at the local level and praise from newspapers and trade publications, Otto placed a full-page ad in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune in July 1928, with new messaging that called sliced bread “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Sound familiar?
With the coverage in multiple publications and strategically placed newspaper ads, Otto finally landed his first national customer: the New York-based Continental Baking Company. In 1930, that company used one of Otto’s machines to launch a new product line that would revolutionize the U.S. bread market.
On the strength of Continental’s marketing and industry presence, sliced bread became a staple on grocery store shelves. By 1933, nearly every baker worth its salt had at least one of Otto’s slicers on its production floor, and some 80% of bread produced and sold in the U.S. was sliced. Even a wartime ban in 1943 couldn’t remove sliced bread as a household fixture, and the government lifted the ban three months later amid public outcry.
After selling his patent rights to Micro-Westco and joining the company as an employee, he retired in 1951 as its vice-president of sales.
A clinic on public perception
Public perception is the cornerstone of successful marketing and advertising. If you don’t have the public on your side, it won’t matter how great your service or product is. Otto knew he had a revolutionary device on his hands, but it would have just sat and collected dust if he hadn’t gotten that initial credibility through the Chillicothe Baking Co.
And even back then, word-of-mouth simply wasn’t enough. It takes branding, messaging, media relations, and running advertisements where your audience is going to see them. In Otto’s case, an ad for a bread-slicing machine got the attention of his target audience: bakers. Pair that with the praise of the trade pubs, and bakeries couldn’t help but add sliced bread to their repertoire.
Even if they didn’t right away, they definitely jumped on board after Wonder Bread was launched.
It just goes to show that people still need to be sold on every new product and every new service, no matter how much we may take it for granted today. But with the right marketing and some patience, if you have the right product on your hands, you can change public behavior and be a part of something really special.