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Bus One Seven: "I Think, Therefore I SPAM"
A history of the meaty online and offline brand
by Roderick Armageddon

 

One of the more frustrating things about becoming a homeowner is the bevy of junk mail you receive almost immediately upon moving in to your new residence. So was the case when I dropped the first duffel bags at our new abode just a year ago. Home Depot, local restaurants, phone companies and cable providers — all vying for a piece of our now heavily strapped monthly income. Most every bit of the unsolicited bunk ends up stacked neatly in the weekly recycling pile — piece after piece of glossy, richly colored envelopes, stickers, form letters, offers, final notices and award notifications. The phenomenon known as junk mail is something most everyone with a mailing address can experience — a little piece of capitalism helping consumers discover what they didn’t even know they needed. So intriguing is this age old approach to invasive selling that Nicholson Baker, author of some of the most beautiful writing ever put on paper (you MUST read The Mezzanine), recently stated that he has been collecting junk mail for the past year and plans to write a book about the plethora of marketing brouhaha that has been expended on his behalf. While this may seem only slightly intriguing to non-Baker readers, after reading one of his books you’ll quickly appreciate the potential he brings to the subject. Junk mail is very American, and very big.

With the advent of the Internet, it was inevitable that junk mail would make its way into whatever new mail-like medium came to fruition — as with the fax machine, as long as there was a receiving address available, there would be a destination for billions of marketing messages. Just as with mailboxes poised on sidewalks across the nation, there is always the possibility of receiving a crippling bomb (virus) in your mailbox. Technology has given us the means and ways to combat the threat of viruses, but these well-crafted gems of destruction have somehow managed to gain a level of clout that makes us fear their wrath all the more. When thinking of the effort and intention put into viruses, they transform into something almost respectable. Junk mail on the other hand, brings no such respect. Junk mail delivers nothing short of complete frustration, accompanied by futile attempts to be removed from endless mailing lists, confirming to the sender that you have indeed received and read their message, justifying future unsolicited mailings. There is no respect for the unwanted HTML messages that turn your Outlook or Eudora into a sluggish beast, further frustrating as you wait impatiently to press delete. There is no respect for this evil — this evil known as spam.

Hormel Foods (NASDAQ HRL) holds the trademark to the now infamous word (SPAM), and was somehow un-counseled when the junk email phenomenon was being labeled. Having coined the brand name in the late 1930’s, Hormel has a new and unfortunate cross to bear, branded on their hide by the children of the new economy. Branded by those who felt powerless in their real-world responses to the timeless art of strategic (and not so strategic) direct mailings. What was once a well-known "brand" is now a "branding." The former a positive marketing result; the latter a smoking insignia emblazoned on the flesh. As we noticed in the wake of the dotcom fallout, most solid, "old economy" companies have already figured out how to persevere in the face of new technology and business trends. History is on Hormel’s side.

In case you’ve somehow managed to remain shielded from the shelves of most grocery stores, you might like to know that Hormel is the nation’s #1 turkey processor and one of the world’s largest pork processors. Hormel is responsible for unleashing a variety of well known labels into our homes: Jennie-O turkey products, Cure 81 hams, and Always Tender fresh pork, as well as canned Stagg chili and Dinty Moore beef stews. The company also has its "little piggies" dangling in a new market segment - so-called "value-added" food products such as Chi-Chi’s Mexican foods and House of Tsang sauces. Hormel has joint ventures in Australia, China (the biggest market for pork in the world), Mexico, and the Philippines. Led boldly by Chairman, President, and CEO Joel W. Johnson, Hormel Foods squeaks (or rather "squeals") onto the Fortune 500 list at number 452. In April 2001, Hormel had assets valued at well over $2 billion, with a total equity of $925 million - the Hormel Foundation, a charitable trust, owns 46% of the company’s stock. In fiscal year ending October 2000, Hormel had sales of $3.6 billion, with the company growing 4.2% - all of this fueled by the tender hands of some 12,200 employees worldwide. Conclusion? "There’s money in them there hog bellies." But we’re not here to chat about the market for Cure 81 hams… oh no, we’re here to take a candid look at the diamond in Hormel’s stinky meat crown: SPAM - the mysterious canned meat that has managed to grow from humble beginnings to new economy infamy.

What came first, the Turkey or the Pig?

Hormel Spiced Ham rolled off the Minnesota production lines for the first time in 1937. Jay C. Hormel wanted a name as distinctive as the taste of his new fleshy pork concoction, so he held a contest to build a little post-depression PR. Kenneth Daigneau, an actor and brother of a Hormel vice president, pocketed the $100 prize by coining the catchy word SPAM by combining the "SP" from spiced, with the "AM" from ham. SPAM was born.

Here’s a little breakdown of the major milestones in SPAM’s history:

  • In 1940, George Burns and Gracie Allen pitched SPAM on the radio with "Spammie the Pig." Many consider this spot to be the first on-air singing advertisement. If I could only get my hands on a copy of that…
  • In 1942, the folks at Hormel convince the government to start shipping canned meat in square cans instead of round cans — all to maximize shipping space and save money. With the war effort in full swing, SPAM is credited (by Nikita Khrushchev) with feeding the Russian army during their winter battles with Hitler’s army. Margaret Thatcher hails SPAM as a "war-time delicacy." Maybe we should thank Hormel for the cold war.
  • In 1945 Jay Hormel organizes 60 ex-servicewomen to become the Hormel Girls, touring around the country singing and dancing, preaching the beauty of Hormel’s canned meat products at fairs, parades and other community events. And you thought some guy driving a big weenie-shaped truck was innovative.
  • Between 1955 and 1957, Hormel manages to pull together agreements with executives from England, Canada, Ireland and Venezuela in order to produce the first SPAM overseas. No offense, but even if I weren’t a vegetarian I wouldn’t touch a can of European SPAM with a ten foot pole.
  • In 1959 the 1 billionth can of SPAM was sold. Due to SPAM’s popularity with Hawaiian based Navy and Air Force personnel, Hawaiian natives quickly learn of the funky new canned meat from the mainland - scarfing down can after can when it starts shipping to the islands in 1959, just after Hawaii joins the union. To this date Hawaiians eat more SPAM per person then any other state in the nation. I’m surprised Jerry Bruckheimer didn’t try to work an early SPAM reference into Pearl Harbor.
  • In 1962 Hormel purchased a hydrostatic cooker to makes SPAM in greater quantity — a single operator can now churn out 350 cans of SPAM per minute. That same year, Hormel introduces the smaller 7-ounce can of SPAM. More SPAM, smaller cans — makes perfect sense.
  • By the end of 1962, over 2 billion cans of SPAM had been sold worldwide.
  • In 1969, SPAM makes its way to Australia through a joint venture marketing campaign. Now the Australians have yet another unpalatable food to choose from.
  • In 1970, Monty Python brings SPAM to the small screen in a series of ultra-silly SPAM-centric diner sketches at The Green Midget Café - also introducing a group of Vikings who mutter "Spam, Spam, Spam," with ever-increasing volume, drowning out normal conversation. Due to this catchy little British sketch, late 90’s techno-geeks coin the phrase "spam" for unsolicited electronic junk mail drowning out normal email correspondence.
  • Hormel introduces smoked SPAM in 1971. A kinder, gentler, sedated SPAM.
  • By 1980, Hormel has sold its 3-billionth can of SPAM… by 1986, that number hits 4 billion. Damn, people, do you not see the tragedy here?
  • In 1987, SPAM hits 50 years old — and still tastes 50 years old.
  • In 1992, Hormel introduces SPAM-lite and low-sodium SPAM. By 2000, Hormel added oven roasted turkey SPAM to the line-up — I’m sorry, but there’s no ham in turkey… Is there?
  • In 1998, Hormel introduces SPAM in a new gold can with a poly-film label, featuring the now infamous SPAM-burger. Has anyone lived to tell what one of these things tastes like?
  • 1998 also saw the launch of SPAM.com. Meat for the techno-masses.
  • By 2001, Hormel has produced more than 5 billion cans of SPAM with 3.6 cans added every second… it’s so popular that Hormel’s SPAM is a registered trademark in 101 countries. Isn’t capitalism beautiful?

From Meat to Mail

For those of us growing up in the tech space of the 1990’s, we can probably remember when junk email was coined "spam"… our chunky canned friend quickly gained new economy notoriety with nearly everyone in the online world quickly adopting the name. On May 30, 2001, in an official statement, Hormel Foods said it was reconciling itself to not fight SPAM’s double meaning as junk e-mail. In a message posted on SPAM.com (the official site), Hormel said it had no qualms with the alternate meaning as long as SPAM, the meat, is written in all capital letters, and spam, the unsolicited e-mail, is in lowercase — a policy that Hormel established in late 1999. While far from being big news for Hormel, SPAM.com’s posting stirred up a whole new pot of attention after an anti-junk mail conference called SpamCon was held this past May in San Francisco. According to the SPAM Website, "We do not object to use of this slang term, although we do object to the use of our product image in association with that term."

Don’t hug that friendly-looking piglet yet - Hormel is far from a free lovin’ company with an open heart — they are after all, a corporation, not a public service project. In a conversation with Reuters in May, Julie Craven, Hormel’s director of public relations, reiterated Hormel’s intentions to both live with the slang term, as well as continue to keep the company’s radar open for violations to their age-old brand: "It certainly was at a point where it was becoming so much out there, and so much a part of popular culture [the slang spam]… If somebody used it inappropriately, they could very well hear from us. Next to our employees, our brand marks are our most important asset."

With branding as their second most important asset, Hormel has developed a darker side: envision a mob of turkey-powered black limos and chubby, gun-toting henchmen with glossy legal teams… freaky, eh? The company has remained aggressively on the offense to squelch alternate meanings of SPAM, listening to branding experts who know what can happen when a brand name gains association with a social negative. The company defended their brand in 1997 by suing Sanford "Spamford" Wallace, a crafty junk e-mail wizard, for posing with cans of Spam in various marketing materials for his spam business. Hormel even went so far as to "put the pig on a spit" when Jim Henson Productions created a Muppet named Spa’am, the high priest of a tribe of wild boars that worships Miss Piggy. Siding with Henson’s claim that the brand had not received a negative impact, a district court threw out the claim in 1996.

Lawsuits, limos or not, Hormel is an old economy company working profits in the new economy, so it’s understandable that they have a strong desire to protect the things that have powered them to the top of the processed meat pile. Hormel doesn’t sell Sony memory sticks or tickets to France; they produce and sell meat products for general consumption. Companies that know how to make something (make it well and make it cheaply) and sell it… those are companies that America can call the builders of its economic foundation — albeit a pink and squishy foundation. I imagine the majority of the people reading this article have probably experienced the smooth, salty texture of SPAM on their tongues at least once — Hell, some of you might have a can sitting in your desk drawer at this very moment, just waiting to plop its jelly-jacketed goodness onto a slab of Wonder Bread.

When times are tough, people eat cheap - for those of you looking for a good buy in this rotting carcass of an economy (pun intended), call your broker and jump on board Hormel, their stock’s sitting at just over $25 and it’s been rising steadily for the past year. Who knows, you just might put your kids through college on the same thing that’ll feed them through midterms. History is on your side.

Hormel facts you really didn’t want to know, and Hormel hoped you wouldn’t find out about:

  • One of the less known facts about Hormel is that the company holds rights to an odd array of patents. Though possessing a variety of technical patents that might warrant mention, the best kept secrets to Hormel’s success can be found in the following patent highlights: Method for making bacon bits from raw bellies; Process for making a low meat product; Hog carcass configurer (you’d hate to have to do this by hand); skinning machine having a reciprocating fat removing knife mechanism thereof; Process and apparatus for cutting hog carcasses; Carcass splitting apparatus; and my personal favorite… Apparatus for splitting animal heads.
  • Not wanting to stir up a paranoid, Solient-Green-esque conspiracy, Hormel has decided to tread lightly on the political front. Employees contributed a meager $2125 to Hormel’s Political Action Committee (aka "HORMEL-PAC") in 1999-2000 — down from $4075 in 1997-1998. Maybe that’s a good thing — it’s bad enough having a meathead in the Oval Office (I couldn’t resist).
  • Hormel has been the focus of a number of Federal court cases since incorporating, most recently fielding the following highlights: one case for product liability filed in 2000; two employment cases filed in 2000 and 2001; and proving that you shouldn’t mess with the big mean meat packer, Hormel has two federal cases pending against local unions — both filed in 2000;

If you have absolutely nothing better to do:

Check out the financial options available to Hormel employees at the Hormel Employees Credit Union: http://www.hecu.org/ - the financial resources provided by canned meat.

Interested in checking out the entire process for making bacon bits from raw bellies? Check out the patent — it gives full details.

 
 
Roderick Armageddon is Chief Thinker for Stage Nomad - a non-profit artistic collective, Rod writes from his home on Mars.