Vegemite

Black and White illustration featuring an IndestructibleFood: Vegemite. Allso pictured is flying toast.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites”

In our last chapter, we talked a bit about how British troops were eating Marmite in the trenches during WWI, but you know who WASN’T enjoying Marmite during WWI? Australians. The War disrupted the supply chain of British goods, and the whole nation was left bereft of yeast-spread. It was a grave emergency, and something had to be done. 

Canned good purveyor Fred Walker stepped up, asking chemist Cyril Callister to make a spread from spent brewer’s yeast. It was certainly meant to take the place of Marmite during the supply chain disruption, but it wasn’t a straight knock-off. Cyril had integrity, and he was determined to create something distinct. First, the texture of his product was different. Instead of being syrupy, Vegemite had a pasty/creamy consistency. The flavor was also unique. Although rich in umami and salty, Vegemite was even more intense than Marmite and had a bitter note that was missing in its predecessor. The product seemed promising.

In 1923, Vegemite hit the shelves. Australia had finally taken its place as a player in the international yeast-spread market! Now they just had to convince people to buy it. The first ad campaign focused on the product’s benefits for children (Vegemite had the same rich B-Vitamin profile as Marmite.) People were not psyched. They loved Marmite. This was not Marmite. As the supply chain opened back up, and Marmite became available in Australia again, people flocked back to it.

The lesson that we learn here is that the health of children was not a good enough reason for people to abandon a much-loved product for an alternate version. Especially if children were just as healthy eating the original. So Vegemite tried something different: a name change. Vegemite became…Parwill. If you think that was a bad idea, listen to this: The new tagline was “If Marmite, Parwill.” Get it? No? Right, no one really did, because it was a belabored and clumsy attempt to say that Vegemite, excuse me, Parwill, was better than Marmite. Literally no one was convinced, and soon, Parwill was Vegemite again. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how in the world Vegemite overcame early resistance to become the cultural phenomenon it is today. What caused Australians to forsake Marmite? The answer, surprisingly, is processed cheese.

In 1925, Fred Walker had started a new venture, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company. (Yes, THAT Kraft cheese!) After buying rights to James L. Kraft’s processed cheese patent, Fred Walker assigned our old chemist pal and Vegemite inventor Cyril to figure out an Australian arm of Kraft cheese production. He did. It was a big success. 

So when Vegemite failed to take off, Fred Walker did the only logical thing: He used his successful product to save his struggling one. Every Australian Kraft cheese purchase came with a coupon for free Vegemite. Even folks who had been resistant were willing to try Vegemite for FREE, especially when it was presented in conjunction with something as cool as processed cheese. Sales began to pick up speed, and by the time Australian troops joined the fight in World War II, they were carrying rations of Vegemite. After the war, they kept buying it. It was at this point that Vegemite finally surpassed Marmite as the most popular yeast-spread in Australia. 

The spread’s success never faltered. Vegemite is now a beloved symbol of Australia. It’s present in 90% of Australian homes. Fans eat it on toast, sure, but they don’t stop there. You’ll find recipes for cheese scrolls, spaghetti, beef pies, gravies, and even brownies. It has woven itself seamlessly through cuisine and culture. It is a product to be proud of.

I’ll leave you with a few entrepreneurial lessons from our friend Fred Walker: 1) Don’t be ashamed to make a new version of a beloved product. A new take on an old favorite can be a hit…eventually! 2) Hire experts. Chemist Cyril Callister figured out the recipe for Vegemite AND the best way to produce Kraft cheese in Australia. Whatever he was paid, it was a deal. 3) If people don’t like your product, try every scheme to change their minds. Name changes! Fancy jars! Medical endorsements! Catchy jingles! Do whatever you need to do, just don’t give up. 4) When nothing works, a free coupon can really make a difference. (When I worked in advertising, I had a boss that would always shoot down ideas by saying “It’s a coupon.” He meant that we had come up with a fancy way to give people a product for free or cheap, which was obviously not creative or interesting. I wish I would have known the story of Vegemite then, because I might have told him to chill about coupons. Sometimes a coupon can turn a struggling product into a national treasure. It doesn’t always have to be “clever” to work.)

A postscript from the author: 

Researching these articles, I’ve become increasingly curious about the lack of small-batch yeast-spread products produced by local breweries. You have spent brewer’s yeast! If y’all made artisanal Marmite/Vegemite would they not be a sensation? I must know someone who’s willing to take this on. Anyway, if you do, write to me, and I’ll illustrate your product for free….to use on your promotional coupons.

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