The fact is, many such brands exist to enhance a celebrity’s name recognition and add to his or her net worth. They tend to be nothing more than me-too products with a novel, notable name. But there is one celebrity brand—Newman’s Own—that came to market quite by accident. Today, it is an international sensation. And incredibly, the brand’s goal is to give its profits away.
Despite his storied acting career and being known for tough guy roles in movies such as The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, and The Verdict, Paul Newman is also a man with a sense of humor and humanity. Perhaps these qualities have much to do with Newman’s Own’s success.
The amusing story of the company’s birth is recounted in Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good, a book written by the company founders. “Newman’s Own” was the intended name of a restaurant the actor was supposed to open near his home in Westport, Connecticut. Instead, as Newman and his friend/co-founder A. E. Hotchner like to say, Newman’s Own, the food products company, “started as a joke and got out of control.”
Newman and Hotchner enjoyed bottling home-made salad dressing and giving it as gifts to friends and neighbors for the holidays. Newman was already known for creating his own salad dressings. Even when he went into a restaurant, Newman had the staff mix up a special dressing using ingredients he specified.
Everyone loved the dressing, so Newman and Hotchner thought, why not sell it? They went so far as to visit with a top marketing firm and were told it would take on the order of $400,000 to test market the product. They quickly rejected that idea and blindly went off on their own, investing about $40,000 in the fledgling venture.
No one took them seriously, least of all themselves. In fact, that’s probably what gave Newman’s Own its lasting personality—a blend of Paul Newman’s personage and a quirky sense of humor that pervades the packaging to this day.
In 1982, it is Stew Leonard, legendary owner of one of the country’s most successful supermarkets in Norwalk, Connecticut, who strong-arms a bottler to package Newman’s Own Oil & Vinegar Salad Dressing. Leonard convinces Newman to put a likeness of his face on the product bottle because, he says, “How else do you get their attention?” Newman hesitantly agrees. Newman and Hotchner decide to poke fun at other products and include the phrase “Fine Foods Since February” on the label. Leonard sells 10,000 bottles of the stuff in two weeks and a brand is born.
From the start, Newman decided that if he was going to lend his name to the business, it would be a philanthropic endeavor. At the end of 1983, Newman’s Own’s first full year, the company had sales in excess of US$3.2 million. Newman’s Own gave away the $397,000 of profit to various charities. Twenty-five years later, Newman’s Own has given away over US$200 million.
Charity not withstanding, the brand must represent quality products people want to buy. When Newman’s Own brought its first salad dressing to market, it competed against numerous better-known products from such industry giants as Kraft. At the time, all of the leading salad dressings used sugar, artificial coloring, gums, and chemical preservatives. The ingredients in Newman’s Own salad dressing were all natural. Newman’s Own continued this strategy as it launched brand extensions and new product lines. Salad dressings led to pasta sauces, steak sauce, marinades, salsa, lemonade, and popcorn.
Ten years after its founding, the company started a division called “Newman’s Own Organics,” led by Newman’s daughter, Nell. In 2001, Newman’s Own Organics was spun off as a separate company. The product line includes pretzels, cookies such as “Fig Newmans,” chocolate bars, dried fruit, soy crisps, and coffee. The company has also launched a line of premium pet food.
Newman’s Own may distribute its profits to charity, but it follows principles that contribute to its growth and success as a profitable business entity. The company has expanded to fifteen countries outside the United States, including Argentina, Australia, France, Japan, and Norway. It has struck a co-branding deal with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. It distributes its salad dressings and coffee through McDonald’s restaurants.
On the charitable side, Newman’s Own distributes its profits through the Newman’s Own Foundation to thousands of charities within the United States and in other countries, particularly where products are sold. Newman’s Own also sponsors the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, given annually to a United States citizen who fights to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Why has Newman’s Own succeeded where other celebrity brands have failed? One reason might be that the company has a brand proposition that can’t be beat. Why wouldn’t a consumer show a brand preference for Newman’s Own when she knows that she can buy a high-quality product while doing some good in the world?