A Well-seasoned Look

The packaging of other food brands may change with the times, but Old Bay's familiar tin endures

February 28, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

When Peter Shankman pictures a tin of Old Bay Seasoning, a childhood tableau leaps to mind. It's a "cold winter night in Manhattan. At 6 p.m., I'd come home and go into the kitchen and open the cabinet and I'd always see that can. It's a good feeling, a good memory there."

It's also a good example of a positive image that has endured, says Shankman, who runs a marketing firm in New York. But when he thinks of Yoo-hoo, the chocolate drink once trumpeted by baseball great Yogi Berra, "warm and fuzzy" isn't in the picture. Instead, he sees extreme skateboarders slicing through the air, with Web site copy to match: The skaters and Yoo-hoo are "two naturally thrashing things that go together as smoothly as chugging down an ice-cold YH tallboy."

Old Bay is one of those venerable brands, particularly resonant in the Chesapeake Bay region, that continues to cash in on its retro image.

That's not the case with Yoo-hoo, a brand reinvented by Shankman's firm, the Geek Factory, with a campaign starring skater guys, skater chicks and loud music targeted at a new generation of Yoo-hoo chuggers.

This is a tumultuous time for ad folks in the food industry, charged with revitalizing old brands and creating new ones for audiences who crave change, integrity and lifestyle compatibility in one tidy package.

It's a climate where branding backflips to please the client abound. Pepsi-Cola, for example, recently launched a "360-degree marketing campaign" with new product graphics every few weeks.

In the midst of this Madison Avenue tempest, Old Bay's contents and logo remain steadfastly the same.

With its primary colors and geometric shapes, the Old Bay brand signifies a trusty building block for the kitchen. (Some may see a similarity to artist Piet Mondrian's rectangles.) Those cute little crab, shrimp and chicken icons practically qualify as folk art. And with its bold lettering, the Old Bay container can broadcast to customers from the far end of the grocery aisle.

"It's so distinctive," says Sherry Trabert, an avid Baltimore cook and Old Bay stalwart. "As soon as you see it, even in a movie or on a cooking show, you know right away what it is."

Just as she recognizes the Old Bay canister, Trabert knows its taste: "A crab cake without Old Bay doesn't taste like a crab cake to me. It adds that Maryland flavor."

"When people see that can, they know exactly what it is," says Laurie Harrsen, a spokeswoman for McCormick & Co., which purchased the Old Bay brand in 1990. "You wouldn't want to change that look, no matter what."

Peering at a vintage 1950s Old Bay can, Harrsen notes how little it differs from today's version. A lobster has been replaced by a chicken -- a move to suggest uses for the spice beyond fish. The label "Old Bay Seafood Seasoning" became "Old Bay Seasoning" for the same reason. Other than that, the closure has been redesigned and some minor labeling material updated.

With a blend of celery seed, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom and paprika, Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant who settled in Baltimore, created Old Bay in the 1940s. The lip-searing mix became synonymous with steamed crabs and other regional seafood specialties.

Under McCormick, Old Bay has spread across the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, Central America, Asia and in military commissaries worldwide. According to the most recent figures from marketing research firm Mintel, Old Bay's sales grew nearly 17 percent from 2003 to 2005.

Related products, including Old Bay Cocktail Sauce and Old Bay with garlic and herb seasoning, extend the brand's reach, as do Utz potato chips seasoned with Old Bay.

Even as the brand remains the same, McCormick must use the latest marketing techniques to pitch its wares, says Claire Rosenzweig, president of the Promotion Marketing Association. "If you have a secret recipe, it probably tastes as good today as it did 100 years ago," she says. Still, "there has to be an appropriate integrated marketing communications strategy."

With Old Bay, that strategy takes the shape of promotional events, such as the high-stakes "Old Bay Peel & Eat Shrimp Classic," to heighten brand awareness.

To further entice converts, a clubby atmosphere prevails on the Old Bay Web site, which spotlights recipes, culinary suggestions from far-flung visitors and one Baltimorean's confession that the theme for his marriage was "Love, Honor and Old Bay."

On the Web site, you'll find the requisite "Old Bay story" featuring the enterprising Brunn, but you'll also see trendy recipes such as Napa Shrimp Stir-Fry and Shrimp Bruschetta.

If McCormick's strategy is to promote Old Bay as a "lifestyle brand," the spice colossus is on the right track, says Kirsten Osolind, the founder of re:invention inc., a Chicago marketing company.

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