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Cake Mixes, Fresh Eggs and a Marketing Legend
There’s an old marketing legend about cakes and eggs.
The story goes that in the 1920s, companies like Pillsbury and General Mills created boxed cake mixes as part of a push toward convenience in the kitchen. The mix had powdered eggs and all the necessary ingredients for a delicious cake – just add water.
But by the 1950s, sales of the cake mixes had plateaued. Companies couldn’t convince more consumers to switch from homemade.
Enter Ernest Dichter.
Dichter was a psychologist in the Edward Bernays school of marketing and the man who invented the term “focus group.”
After studying housewives, Dichter had his answer for why cake mix sales were slumping. The cake mixes were too convenient, and women felt guilty using them.
Cakes are typically the centerpiece of birthdays and family celebrations, Dichter reasoned, and many women weren’t willing to admit their cake wasn’t made from scratch.
His solution: Tweak the recipe to require one or two fresh eggs. By forcing a bit more planning and work, Dichter said bakers would feel more ownership over the end product, and mixes would fly off the shelves.
A Hard Egg to Crack
That’s the legend that’s persisted to this day. But the reality is, consumers bought cake mixes with fresh eggs because they tasted better. It wasn’t a marketing gimmick, and companies didn’t need to trick their customers into valuing their product.
Eventually, cake mix sales did increase not because of fresh eggs, but because of a different ingredient – frosting.
Cake mix manufacturers started marketing cake mixes using photos of elaborate cakes with multiple layers and intricate frosting decorations. They positioned the cake itself as just one part of a broader creative process.
It kept a key ingredient of Dichter’s theory – that bakers needed to be proud of the finished product – but stripped away the marketing stunt and focused instead on how the product fit into a larger experience for the customer.