My father loved it. Ate it all the time. And he was in the army in 1945, where I imagine they had a lot of it.
I haven’t had it in 20 years, at least, and never purchased a can myself.
How about you guys?
While you might think of Spam as a basic canned meat, it’s actually one of the greatest business success stories of all time: Since Hormel Foods Corporation launched the affordable, canned pork product in 1937, it’s sold over eight billion cans in 44 countries around the world.
On July 5, Spam celebrates its 80th anniversary. It’s fitting that this comes only a day after the birthday of the United States. The product is up there with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut as one of the most distinctive American brands of all time.
As a consumer behavior researcher, I believe Spam’s widespread success can be attributed to two factors: it addressed a real need, and also formed an emotional connection with its consumers, by tapping into American ideals like ingenuity and resourcefulness.
Spam ‘hits the spot’
Spam isn’t exactly the most exciting product.
The original recipe included chopped pork shoulder meat with ham, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite. (This remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel added potato starch in an effort to eliminate one of the product’s less attractive features: the gelatin layer created by the cooking process.) At the time it was introduced, it was the only canned meat product on the market that needed no refrigeration. This feature gave Spam a significant competitive advantage.
Hormel also created buzz around its new product by sponsoring a name contest to promote it.
The winner was an actor named Kenneth Daigneau, who was awarded US$100 for coming up with the name “Spam.” (He was also the brother of Hormel’s vice president, so there may have been a bit of nepotism involved.)
Anointed with its new name, the product was buoyed by a heavy advertising effort that emphasized its versatility. For example, in 1940, Hornel fielded submissions from Spam fans to create a 20-page recipe book featuring 50 ways of incorporating the canned meat into meals.
Homemakers readily embraced Spam, and it became a popular lunch and breakfast meat. But sales really took off during World War II. Over 150 million pounds were used in the war effort, making Spam a cornerstone of troops’ diets. (Soldiers also used Spam’s grease to lubricate their guns and waterproof their boots.) In each country where they were stationed, American soldiers introduced it to the locals, giving foreigners their first taste of Spam.
Since then, Spam has become a sought-after product in many countries around the world, especially those that have faced economic hardship. Because it’s cheap, filling and has a long shelf life, it addresses a real need.
As American as apple pie?
But how did it become such a cultural icon?
In a 2012 paper, marketing researchers Rajeev Batra, Aaron Ahuvia and Richard P. Bagozzi developed a model of “brand love.” Based on studies on consumers’ brand attachment, they showed that in order to form meaningful attachment with brands, consumers need to experience them in ways beyond simply buying and using the product.
Hormel seemed to intuitively understand these ideas. Simply selling a cheap, useful product wouldn’t be enough. In creative and humorous ways that went beyond traditional advertising, they appealed to consumers by positioning the brand as a patriotic food that reflected American ingenuity – with a streak of eccentricity.