Many famous brands got their start in straightforward ways. For example, agricultural machinery giant John Deere was founded in the 1830s by an Illinois blacksmith who invented an innovative plow, and candy behemoth Mars Inc. can trace its beginnings to the early 1920s, when then-struggling candy maker Frank Mars launched the Milky War bar, which proved an immediate hit. However, when it comes to other iconic brands, the stories of how they were established might surprise you.
Today, his moniker is most commonly associated with cake mix, but Duncan Hines’ first claim to fame was for a pioneering restaurant guidebook he published in the 1930s. While driving around the country as a traveling salesman—in an age when there were few chain restaurants, food quality and sanitary conditions at dining establishments could be sketchy and restaurant ratings were practically nonexistent—Hines kept a list of places he liked. After receiving frequent requests from friends for restaurant recommendations, he published his influential guidebook, “Adventures in Good Eating,” in 1936. The book was a hit, and Hines, who was dubbed America’s “eatery expert,” went on to release updated versions of his guide along with other books for travelers. He became famous for his high standards and never accepted advertising or payment for his reviews. As a result, “Recommended by Duncan Hines” signs were coveted by lodges and restaurants. In the late 1940s, he formed a business to license his name for a range of culinary products.
King Camp Gillette also started out as a traveling salesman after his family lost their hardware business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Years later, following his boss’ advice to create disposable items to increase the likelihood of repeat customers, he helped develop a design for a disposable razor blade. Until that time, many men went to barber shops for a shave or used a straight-end razor at home that required frequent sharpening. Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Company in 1901 and within a year was selling more than 90,000 razors and 12 million blades annually.
Gillette’s face appeared on the packaging for his products and he soon became famous, but his true passion was socialism, not capitalism. He wrote a series of books to promote his ideas of vast utopia, which included a plan to organize the world into one giant, publically owned corporation and the creation of a vast metropolis, powered by Niagara Falls, that would be home to 60 million Americans. Gillette even offered Theodore Roosevelt $1 million to head the entity, but the recently retired president turned him down.
In 1835 a young Louis Vuitton left his working-class village in the French countryside and set off by foot for Paris, where he secured a position as an apprentice box-maker and packer. At the time, the wealthy had their belongings professionally packed in order to withstand rough travel conditions, and boxes and trunks were custom-made to fit specific items. By the the early 1850s, Vuitton became the personal box-maker and packer for Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife, and soon opened his own Parisian packing workshop that featured a line of rectangular-shaped, flat-bottomed trunks that were easier to stack than the traditional, curved-top styles of the day. As his popularity continued to increase among the French elite, Vuitton’s products were knocked off by competitors. In an effort to combat this issue, four years after Vuitton’s 1892 death, his son Georges, who had taken over the business, designed the distinctive, now-famous LV monogram.
William Wrigley Jr. got his start hawking his father’s soap products on the streets of Philadelphia. After moving to Chicago in 1891, Wrigley began offering incentives to entice shopkeepers to carry his ware, including free cans of baking powder with every order. When the baking powder proved more popular than the soap, Wrigley began selling that instead, tossing in two packs of chewing gum per order to sweeten the deal. The gum was such a hit that in 1893 Wrigley debuted two new brands of gum of his own, Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. Ever the savvy marketer, in 1915 Wrigley sent free gum samples to every American household listed in phone books.
The roots of one of America’s largest retailers dates to 1886, when Minnesota railroad station agent Richard Sears received a shipment of watches that a local jeweler refused to sign for. Sensing an opportunity, Sears established a side business selling the watches the other agents, eventually quitting his railroad job to focus on his new enterprise. The following year, an ad Sears had placed in a Chicago newspaper brought watchmaker Alvah Roebuck into the business, which quickly expanded into a general mail-order catalog that catered to America’s rural residents tired of the higher prices typically charged at their local stores.The retailer became famous for its catalogs, which could be hundreds of pages long and featured a broad array of items, including clothing, tools, musical instruments, headstones and even ready-to-assemble houses. In 1925, with increasing numbers of Americans moving to cities, Sears opened its first retail store, in Chicago.
The Maine-based sporting goods retailer got its start in 1911, when Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman with an eighth-grade education, came home from a hunting trip with wet, uncomfortable feet. Bean, who had briefly worked in his brother’s shoe store, had a cobbler sew leather tops onto a pair of workmen’s rubber boots to create a more functional form or footwear. The following year, Bean jump-started his business by mailing a promotion flyer to everyone who held a Maine hunting license, declaring “You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed.” He took orders for 100 pairs of his product, dubbed the Maine Hunting Shoe, but 90 of them were returned because of defects. Undaunted, Bean refunded everyone’s money, ironed out the quality issues and mailed a new batch of fliers. His company soon was thriving, and in 1917, he launched his first retail store in Freeport.