It’s the all-American meat company that put a hot dog on wheels and managed to make bologna cute and lovable. Indeed, savvy marketing has been key to Oscar Mayer’s success through the years. And it began more than a century ago, when a German immigrant began stamping a floral brand on his signature sausage links and bacon slabs.
1. THERE REALLY WAS AN OSCAR MAYER.
Born in Germany in 1859, Oscar J. Mayer came to the U.S. at age 14 and learned the meat-making trade in Chicago. In his twenties, he and his brother Gottfried leased out a failing meat plant and within a matter of months had made it profitable. The plant’s owner refused to renew their lease, hoping to continue the Mayers’ success story himself. Unfazed, Oscar and Gottfried borrowed $10,000, opened another shop, and proceeded to make a fortune selling old-world sausages, bacon, and lard. From there, they went on to build an empire.
2. THE BRAND WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS EDELWEISS.
In the early 1900s, meat makers typically didn’t brand their products. But the Mayers wanted customers to know that their meats were a cut above the competition, and to ask for them by name. So the brothers incorporated the brand Edelweiss—named, as any Sound of Music fan knows, for the high-altitude flower found in the Alps. The title lasted for 13 years before it became “Oscar Mayer Approved Meat Products.”
3. THEY EMBRACED FOOD SAFETY BEFORE THAT WAS A THING.
Shortly after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 meat industry exposé The Jungle, the U.S. government implemented the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Many meat companies fought the legislation and even denied inspectors access to their facilities. But Oscar Mayer became an early supporter of the bill, claiming it had nothing to hide.
4. THAT YELLOW BAND GOES WAY BACK.
Oscar Mayer was ahead of the curve when it came to branding and marketing. To further distinguish its name in a crowded field of meat makers, the company began wrapping its hot dogs in yellow paper bands back in 1929. It’s a practice that endures today, and it’s become part of Oscar Mayer’s logo.
5. THE FIRST SPOKESMAN WAS A TINY CHEF NAMED “LITTLE OSCAR.”
He was the world’s smallest chef, according to the company, and he spent his days touring the country stumping for Oscar Mayer meats. Numerous pint-sized actors played the part, but the first was Meinhardt Raabe, a Wisconsin native who, after several years of playing Little Oscar, headed to Hollywood where he landed the one and only film role of his career: as the munchkin coroner in The Wizard of Oz who declares the Wicked Witch of the East "really most sincerely dead."
6. THE WIENERMOBILE DEBUTED IN 1936.
Oscar’s nephew Carl came up with the Wienermobile as a vehicle for Little Oscar. The original version was just 13 feet long and looked like it was ready to roll into battle. Today, there are six Wienermobiles crisscrossing the country, and each measures 27 feet long and comes equipped with a GPS, cushy red-and-yellow seats, and an audio system that blasts the Wiener Jingle in 21 different musical styles.
7. ITS DRIVERS ARE KNOWN AS “HOTDOGGERS.”
Thousands apply; only a few are chosen. So what does it take? The company requires that applicants be college grads with a degree in marketing, public relations, or journalism. They also need to be outgoing, endlessly enthusiastic, and judging from one winning application, good with puns. “Let’s be frank,” Daniel Duff wrote in his successful Hotdogger application. “I would relish the opportunity.”
8. THE “WIENER JINGLE” IS ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL AD JINGLES IN HISTORY.
"I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener…" Those now-famous words first made their way across the airwaves in 1963, and would continue to be featured in company ads for the next 50 years. The jingle came out of a contest the company put on. The writer, Richard Trentlage, modeled it after something his son had said about a daredevil friend who owned a dirt bike: “I wish I could be a dirt bike hot dog.” Trentlage, who only heard about the contest the night before the deadline, quickly wrote it down and had his two children sing the song while he strummed the banjo-uke. It was their voices (and Trentlage’s playing) that appeared in the original ad.
9. THE O-S-C-A-R AD DIDN’T FOLLOW THE SCRIPT.
Ten years after its wildly successful “Wiener Jingle,” Oscar Mayer came up with another kid-centered concept, this time to sell bologna. The idea was to film several children separately as they ran around and played outdoors while singing the jingle. Because they were so young, the kids didn’t even have to memorize the whole song. After an exhausting day of filming, the director approached Oscar Mayer’s VP of marketing, Jerry Ringlien, and asked what he should do with the 20 minutes of light remaining. As Ringlien recently recounted:
We said, do whatever you want to do—we’re packing up to get out of here … So he went to the kids and said, ‘is there anyone who can sing the whole commercial from beginning to end without making a mistake?’ And this one little kid raised his hand and said ‘Yes, I can.’ His name was Andy Lambros. So the director put him out on a pier, because that way he could take advantage of the light that was still left and said ‘okay, go ahead.’ And he did. He sang the whole song.
That final, last-minute take would become one of the most popular commercials of all time.
10. LUNCHABLES REVIVED THE COMPANY.
Oscar Mayer struggled through the '80s as people began to grow tired of processed meat. The company had expanded into fresh turkey by buying Louis Rich in 1979, but it was the introduction of Lunchables in 1988 that helped Oscar Mayer regain its former glory. The product was ingenious, really: It was the same bologna Oscar Mayer had been selling for years, packaged along with crackers and cheese, and sold as a way for kids to create their own meal. In its first year, Lunchables brought in $317 million, and currently bring in an estimated $1 billion annually.
11. ITS PRODUCT FLOPS INCLUDE A QUARTER-POUND HOT DOG.
Every big company has its duds. Called “The Big One,” Oscar Mayer’s quarter-pound hot dog debuted in 1978 and quickly exited the market. Years later, hoping to cash in on the success of Lunchables, the company again overestimated people’s appetites with “Maxxed Out” Lunchables, which included 40 percent more food.
12. THERE’S NOW A WIENER ROVER AND A WIENIE-BAGO.
Further proving Oscar Mayer’s love of vehicles and puns, there’s now an off-road capable Wiener Rover and a decked-out Wienie-Bago making promotional stops across the country. One’s only three-and-a-half feet long while the other is, well, a camper, but both come stuffed with hot dogs.
13. THEY’VE RIDDEN THE CORPORATE ROLLERCOASTER OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS.
Oscar Mayer remained a family-run business until 1981, when it sold to General Foods Corporation. Phillip Morris acquired General Foods soon after, then in 1989 placed Oscar Mayer under its newly acquired Kraft Foods brand. In 2012, the Altria Group (the new name for Phillip Morris) split Kraft in two, placing Oscar Mayer under its Mondelez International banner. Then just last year, Kraft merged with the grocery giant Heinz. To consolidate its holdings, Kraft Heinz announced it would move Oscar Mayer’s headquarters from Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago, and shut down several U.S. manufacturing plants. Welcome to the world of big food.