#014: The Man That Nearly Killed Coffee
Today, coffee is an eye-popping $50 Billion dollar market in the U.S. alone. And it makes perfect sense.
3 out of 5 American adults drink coffee every day. Each drinks about 3 cups per day. And in total, that’s 150 million Americans drinking over 400 million cups of coffee per day made from 1.56 million metric tons of coffee beans per year.
To put that in perspective, 1.56 million metric tons is equal to:
- 42 Empire State Buildings
- 780 fully loaded NASA Space Shuttles
- 10,400 blue whales
But this huge industry almost wouldn’t exist today. At the start of the 20th century, the coffee industry was in trouble.
The coffee industry was nearly assassinated with ruthless, persuasive precision by one man.
On October 26th, 1854, Charles Rollin Post and Caroline (Lathrop) Post gave birth to a baby boy. They named this boy Charles William Post (a.k.a C.W. Post).
There isn’t much information on Charles’ early life. His story only picks up in 1869. At the age of 15, he quit school and dived straight into the world of business.
He started a hardware store in Independence, Kansas. Then he sold it a year later for a profit. He worked as a traveling salesman for farming equipment. Then he invented, patented and manufactured farm equipment of his own.
Along the way, on November 4th 1874, Charles married Ella Letitia Merriweather. They gave birth to only one child in 1887. A girl they’d name Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Charles had a strong talent for invention. He invented farm equipment like a seed planter, a hay stacker, cultivators and so on. He also invented a smokeless cooker, a water-powered electric generator, a player piano and a new type of suspenders.
Though, it didn’t take long for Charles to suffer some kind of nervous breakdown.
Because of long hours and money struggles, Charles had breakdowns in 1885, 1888 and the worst one in 1890. To help him recover, Charles moved with Ella and now-7 year old Marjorie to Battle Creek, Michigan.
At Battle Creek, Charles checked himself into the famed Sanitarium. This was a care center owned by a man named Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. You might know him as “brother to the guy who started Kellogg’s cereals.”
Stealing Ideas from Kellogg
After nine months at the Sanitarium, Charles wasn’t getting better. Dr. Kellogg told Charles’ wife that he was going to die soon. Out of desperation, Ella took up a course in Christian Science with her cousin, Elizabeth Gregory. She hoped to learn how to cure her dying husband.
When Elizabeth found out, she went to the dying Charles and… told him that he was making it all up. That it was all in his head. And all he had to do was to believe he was healthy and eat whatever he wanted.
What’s even stranger is… it worked?
Charles started getting better. And in 1892, he was back in business.
He started a business called the La Vita Inn, a care center like Kellogg’s Sanitarium. Because of his experience, Charles’ La Vita Inn claimed all illness was the result of bad thinking.
In 1895, he started manufacturing Postum, a coffee substitute made from wheat and bran. It was a lot like the Caramel Coffee Dr. Kellogg’s served at the Sanitarium. Postum quickly took off and he shut down the La Vita Inn.
He then changed his beliefs from “All disease is caused by poor thinking” to “You can recover from any disease by stopping coffee and using Postum.”
Charles Starts Advertising
Charles was a BIG believer in the power of advertising.
That same year, Charles negotiated a $10,000 credit ($310,000 today) to advertise in the Grand Rapids Evening Press. He won this line of credit by visiting the editor’s office. He brewed some Postum for the editor and began his pitch. The editor wasn’t really feeling his sales pitch until he saw a health claim in one of Charles’ notes. The note said, “It makes red blood.”
A few months later, Charles was spending $1,250 per month ($38,000 today) on advertising. By 1897, he was spending $20,000 per month ($620,000 today). Over the course of his life, he’d spent over $12MM ($300MM today) to promote Postum and a few other products. About 70% of his ad spend went to local newspapers and 30% to national magazines.
Why spend so much on advertising?
Post didn’t want to rely on salespeople. He wanted to speak directly to the customer and make customers ask for his products. This way, the grocers and wholesalers would come to him.
Because he was doing so much advertising, he started his own in-house department to write the ads. But Charles was a lot like George Eastman (see the story of The Kodak 1888’s $1 Billion in Sales). He wrote a lot of his ads himself.
By doing this, Charles learned principles of good copywriting. He once said ads “must use plain words, homely illustrations and the vocabulary of the customer.” He also wasn’t too worried about “correct” grammar. Just as long as the reader understood.
Thanks to strong advertising, Charles had become a millionaire by 1902. But he made a lot of enemies along the way.
Because almost all his ads slandered coffee.
The Man That Nearly Killed Coffee
Remember, all this happened before the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This was the Wild West of advertising and Charles made the most of it.
He sold Postum as a coffee substitute. Which meant that all his advertising had one goal in mind: make coffee evil and recommend Postum instead.
He did that in every way he could think of:
- He said coffee caused fake medical conditions like “coffee heart” or “coffee neuralgia”.
- One of his headlines was, “Lost Eyesight through Coffee Drinking”.
- One ad said 1 in 3 coffee drinkers were sick.
- He said coffee was a “poisonous drug” like cocaine and nicotine.
- He said that coffee attacks internal organs.
Charles even sent out direct mail campaigns. The letters used pseudoscience to explain how coffee could even cause paralysis.
And at the end, he’d say that all these problems would disappear by quitting coffee and drinking Postum instead.
With ruthless ad after ruthless ad, Postum sales kept going up. And the coffee industry couldn’t fight back. They didn’t know how. Charles was just too good at writing ads.
The coffee industry even got together and considered secretly hiring Charles to write ads for coffee. The situation became THAT desperate. And Charles? Charles laughed at the idea. He said he can’t write for coffee because he doesn’t believe in it. He only believes in Postum and that’s why he could write so well about it.
But the coffee industry got lucky.
Not too long after this, Charles died in 1914. After his death, his daughter Marjorie (then-27 years old) took over the company and his estate. (Fun fact: This made Marjorie the wealthiest woman in the U.S. at the time)
With Charles no longer alive to write ads for Postum, sales started going down. The company was still successful and had introduced more products. But it still didn’t have the same magic it once did.
In 1924, Marjorie hired a very new advertising agency to handle the ads for Postum. This agency was Young & Rubicam (Y&R) and this is one of the first ads Y&R ever made.
While this ad wasn’t written by Charles, it had hints of Charles’s writing in it. But it was… less loud about the dangers of coffee and spoke with more eloquence about it.
Regardless, it is the single most successful ad ever run for the Postum Cereal Company. And that’s what we’re going to look at today.
The Full Ad
The 1933 Investment Booklet for General Foods (formerly Postum Cereal) showed sales from 1922. I’ve taken these numbers and put them into a graph below.
As you can see, in the year this ad ran (1924), sales grew overnight by $1,223,892 ($18.6MM today).
Let’s look at why.
Why Men Crack…
This is an informational headline. It promises that you’ll learn something in the ad.
It is also a fear-focused headline. It scares you a little bit by hinting at a problem. You might not know the reason why men crack, so you read further because this might help you avoid it.
Not only does fear sell, Postum had a long history of selling based on appeals to fear and self-preservation. Charles showed that was true for about 2 decades for writing his own ads for Postum. So it makes perfect sense for Y&R to use fear as well.
It also targets the specific audience: Men.
And it does so without making any outrageous claims that would create legal issues.
All that in only three words. No doubt in my mind this took a lot of rewrites to do.
An authority of international standing recently wrote: “You have overeated and plugged your organs with moderate stimulants, the worst of which are not only alcohol and tobacco, but caffein and sugar.” … He was talking to men who crack physically, in the race of success.
The subheading continues the thought in the headline.
It quotes an authority “of international standing” to give credibility to the ad. And it beautifully ties in the desire for success. One more motivation to keep reading.
Opening Paragraphs – Defining The Problem
YOU know them. Strong men, vigorous men, robust men–men who have never had a sick day in their lives. They drive. They drive themselves to the limit. They lash themselves over the limit with stimulants. They crack. Often, they crash.
You have seen them afterward. Pitiful shells. The zest gone, the fire gone. Burnt-out furnaces of energy.
“He was such a healthy-looking man–”
The ad begins with very visual, colorful language. It paints a vivid picture, of peak health and then of rock bottom. It captures in a few lines WHAT the problem is.
Opening Paragraphs – Explaining The Mechanism Of The Problem
He was. His health was his undoing. His constitution absorbed punishment. Otherwise he might have been warned in time.
“For every action there is an equal and contrary reaction.” You learned the law in physics. It applies to bodies.
For every ounce of energy gained by stimulation, by whipping the nerves to action, an ounce of reserve strength is drained. If the reserve is great, its loss may not be felt immediately. But repeated withdrawals exhaust any reserve. Physical brankruptcy. Then the crash.
This is excellent copywriting here.
The copywriter masterfully quotes Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion. This is brilliant because he takes the belief, trust and sound logic from the Third Law. Then transfers that to what he’s about to explain. This makes the reader accept what he’ll say with no question. Why? Because questioning what comes next is also questioning physics itself.
He goes on to explain using an easy-to-understand analogy. Not a single biology term in sight. He writes to be understood, so he uses the idea of an “energy reserve” and talks about energy in ounces.
The end result is that the reader accepts the premise that stimulants TAKE something from you.
Note that we still haven’t said anything about coffee/caffeine yet.
Opening Paragraphs – Take The Blame Away From The Reader
The last ten years have been overwrought. Men have disregarded much that they know about hygiene–about health. “Keeping up with the times.” Inflated currency, stimulated production, feverish living, goaded nerves. It is time to check up.
The copywriter here puts the blame on society.
In the last 10 years (1914 to 1924), Americans suffered the stress of World War 1. Then, the “Roaring 20’s” began where the American economy grew. Production increased. Incomes increased. The chase for money and social status increased.
All these things are captured in this paragraph to say that men have been so busy, they’ve forgotten basics about health.
But there isn’t much copy for taking away the blame. You can find better examples of this in the incredible story of why we wear deodorant and in the story of how someone sold $70 million in English courses to native English speakers.
Opening Paragraphs – Introduce The Solution
It is time to get back to normal, to close the drafts, to bank some of the fires. It is time to remember some of the simple lessons of health you learned in school.
Avoid stimulants. What is good for the boy is good for the man. Life is worth living normally. The world looks good in the morning to the man whose head does not have to be “cleared.”
These paragraphs are a transition to the product in the next section.
Borrowed Energy Must Be Repaid!
Two million American families avoid caffein [sic] by drinking Postum. And two million American families are better off for it. They have deprived themselves of nothing.
Now we finally talk about Postum and about replacing caffeine.
The copywriter mentions “two million American families” to use social proof and build up Postum as a good substitute. He answers the “But I’ll miss coffee” objection by saying those families have deprived themselves of nothing.
The rest of this section are just various benefits / selling points of Postum and how different it is from coffee. It also shares the “mechanism” for how Postum delivers those benefits.
There isn’t much to analyse, but I will type it out to make it easy to read.
The need they feel for a good, hot drink is amply satisfied by Postum. They like its taste. They like its wholesomeness. They prefer the energy–real energy of body-building grain in a place of artificial energy borrowed from the body’s own reserve by drug stimulation.
Postum is made of whole wheat and bran roasted. A little sweetening. Nothing more.
It is not an imitation of coffee or anything else. It is an excellent drink in its own right. It has a full, rich flavor inherited directly from nourishing wheat and system-toning bran. Instead of retarding or upsetting digestion, it is an actual help, making the meal more appetizing and warming the stomach without counteracting these good effects by drugging.
There isn’t a wakeful hour, a taut nerve, or a headache in it. You can drink it every meal of the day, relish it, crave it, knowing that it is a help, not a hindrance, to health and efficiency.
A Sporting Proposition
Which is another way of saying, “How about I make you a deal?”
You have a good many years yet to live, we hope. A good many years to do with as you please. We are going to ask you, in the interest of your health, usefulness and happiness during these remaining years, to try Postum for thirty days.
To make it a sporting proposition, we will give you the first week’s supply of Postum. Enough for a cup with every meal for a week. But we want you to carry on from that point for thirty days. You can’t expect to free yourself from the accumulated effect of a habit of years in two or three days, or even a week.
Here, the copywriter invites the reader to try Postum and offers their first week for free.
He also hedges himself by encouraging they try it a full 30 days. Why? He tells you. Because you can’t undo years of caffeine use in just a few days. This is important to highlight because people are more willing to accept something if you explain why you want them to do it.
There is a woman in Battle Creek, Michigan, famous for her Postum. She has traveled all over the country, preparing it. She has personally served it to over half a million people, at expositions, food fairs, and at Postum headquarters in Battle Creek, where she has 25,000 visitors yearly.
Her name is Carrie Blanchard. Men who have tasted Carrie Blanchard’s Postum have the habit of remembering its goodness.
This part… kind of comes out of nowhere.
The truth is Carrie Blanchard is made up. She doesn’t exist.
I can only guess that because this is a food ad aiming men, Y&R decided to have a woman personality and/or spokesperson for the product.
Carrie is used to make the rest of the offer.
We have asked her to tell men about Postum made in the Carrie Blanchard way. She wants to start you on your thirty-day test with her own directions–in addition to the week’s supply.
You men who have not cracked–it might be well to accept Carrie Blanchard’s offer.
Carrie Blanchard’s Offer
“Men have always been partial to my Postum. Anybody can make it as well as I can–but there are a few simple things to remember.
“I have written these things down, and will be mighty glad to send my directions to anyone who will write. I also want to send enough Instant Postum, or Postum Cereal (the kind you boil), to get you well started on your thirty-day test.
“If you will send in your name and address, I’ll see that you get the kind you want, right away.”
And now, I think we see the logic here.
Carrie Blanchard isn’t just a made-up personality. she’s a selling point for an information booklet. Or rather, a recipe book.
The idea being that the buyer can also make such great Postum for themselves just as easily, if they get the instructions to do so.
TEAR THIS OUT–MAIL IT NOW
POSTUM CEREAL CO., Inc., Battle Creek, Mich.
I want to make a thirty-day test of Postum. Please send me, without cost or obligation, one week’s supply of…
INSTANT POSTUM … [ ] Check which
POSTUM CEREAL … [ ] you prefer
If you live in Canada, address POSTUM CEREAL Co., Ltd., 45 Front St. East. Toronto. Ont.
YOUR GROCER SELLS POSTUM IN TWO FORMS. Instant Postum, made in the cup by adding boiling water is the easiest drink in the world to prepare. Postum Cereal (the kind you boil) is also easy to make, but should be boiled 20 minutes. Either form costs less than most other hot drinks.
A few things here.
We have buying instructions. Preparation instructions. And no specific price, because it probably varies by store/region. Just a mention that its cheaper than other similar products.
This is in the footnote just in case someone wants Postum, but doesn’t want to go through with mailing the coupon. Though, it is in very small font so that it doesn’t distract from the rest of the ad.
In your business…
- Copywriting can make your business run circles around your competition. The entire coffee industry was at Charles’ mercy, up until the day he died. Back then, great copy was an advantage. These days, it is almost required.
- Pace yourself. Charles had almost worked himself to death three separate times. Regardless of the science he pushed, the human body needs rest. Take some time off before you get sick and are forced to take time off.
- Offer a trial. This ad is offering a 1-week trial for a hot drink in 1924. It’s the 21st century. Surely you can do some kind of trial, no matter your product.
In your copy…
- Fear sells. The entire news industry is built on the truth that bad news sells more than good news. Test using fear or danger based headlines in your copy.
- Use easy-to-understand analogies. This ad makes brilliant use of a law of physics and a “reserve of energy” to explain why stimulants are bad for the reader. Rather than using complicated science, try the same in your ads. If you can explain how the product works to a 12-year old, you can talk about it in your copy.
- Know that principles of good copy are timeless. As long ago as the late 1800’s, Charles was using principles that still apply today.
Most of the information on Charles William Post in this article was found in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed The World by Mark Pendergrast.