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How Heinz uses a fake number to keep its brand timeless

<i>Jay Paull/Archive Photos/Getty Images</i><br/>
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Jay Paull/Archive Photos/Getty Images

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN Business

Heinz has been linked to the number 57 for more than a century. The company’s “57 varieties” slogan was a key part of its early strategy to attract consumers. It’s still featured on Heinz ketchup bottles today and is central to the brand’s identity.

But that famous number is completely made up.

There weren’t 57 Heinz varieties when Pittsburgh business magnate H.J. Heinz first invented the slogan in 1896. Nor when Heinz 57 sauce was introduced soon after. There aren’t 57 now. There are, in fact, hundreds of Heinz varieties.

The 57 on a Heinz bottle is more than just the right spot to smack to make the ketchup ooze out at .028 miles per hour. That number has stuck around for 126 years because it reinforces Heinz as a nostalgic and distinctly American food brand — the condiment you put on your hot dog at a baseball game or on a burger at a summer barbeque, marketing experts say.

In the early 1890s, H.J. Heinz, once described by a biographer as a “marketing genius,” sold bottled horseradish, pickles, pepper sauce, ketchup — introduced by the company in 1876 spelled “catsup” and soon changed to “ketchup” to distinguish the product — among some 60 food items. Pickles were Heinz’s biggest success at the time, and he became known as the “pickle king.”

Visiting New York City in 1896, Heinz spotted an advertisement for “21 styles” of shoes. He found it memorable and thought attaching a number to his own brand would help it stick with consumers.

There are varying theories on why he landed on 57.

Ashleigh Gibson, Heinz’s brand director, said in an email that the company’s founder felt there was something “mystical, magical, and memorable” about the number 57, which was a combination of five, his lucky number, and seven, his wife’s lucky number.

But Heinz’s personal secretary, who wrote an early biography of his boss, said that when Heinz was counting up the number of varieties the company sold in 1896, the number seven jumped out at him.

“Seven, seven —there are so many illustrations of the psychological influences of that figure and of its alluring significance to people of all ages and races,” Heinz said, according to the biography. “58 Varieties or 59 Varieties did not appeal at all to me as being equally strong.”

Within a week of seeing the shoe ad, the “57 varieties'” slogan was appearing in newspapers and on billboards, Heinz wrote in his diary. The company carved 57 on hillsides for train passengers to see and “57 Good Things For The Table” was featured on the first electric billboard in New York City in 1900. The sign stood six stories high, had 1,200 fluorescent light bulbs and included a 43-foot-long flashing Heinz pickle, according to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

“I myself did not realize how highly successful a slogan it was going to be,” Heinz said.

‘Good luck charm’

Today, “57 varieties” is slapped high on the neck of Heinz’s octagon-shaped glass tomato ketchup bottles. In the center, “57 varieties” is printed in small gold lettering above a hanging tomato vine on the keystone-shaped label modeled after Heinz’s home state. 57 is also featured on Heinz’s baked beans, mustard, mayonnaise and cream of tomato soup.

The slogan is used as a branding device to convey a “sense of timelessness and authenticity” to consumers, Kelly Haws, a marketing professor who studies consumer choices about food at Vanderbilt University, said in an email.

Gibson said the slogan has become “a brand asset,” similar to the company’s logo, keystone and glass bottle design, reminding consumers of Heinz’ history.

Heinz and its association with 57 have also served as minor footnotes in US history.

When Joe DiMaggio’s record hit streak ended at 56 games in 1941, the Yankees star reportedly told a teammate that he missed out on $10,000 promised to him by Heinz if he matched its label.

According to “Demagogue,” a 2020 biography of Sen. Joe McCarthy, McCarthy once told a reporter “probably in jest” that when he alleged he had a list of 57 names of communists working in the State Department, he came up with the number from a bottle of Heinz ketchup. It’s even is a plot point in the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Then there’s the Heinz 57 sauce for steak, chicken and pork, which was memorialized by Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”: “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes.”

Noel Geoffrey, who led the Heinz ketchup division from 2008 to 2011, said 57 was “like a good luck charm” at the company. The telephone number for the main switchboard at its previous headquarters — the Heinz 57 Center— was, of course, 57. In 2001, the company paid the Pittsburgh Steelers $57 million over 20 years for naming rights to the stadium.

“It was everywhere,” Geoffrey said, “and part of the DNA of the company.”

Innovation in food marketing

It may seem commonplace today, but the idea of “57 varieties” was a significant innovation in food marketing at the time. In the late 19th century, packaged and processed foods were a new concept to the public.

“The big shift was to try to create a consumer population for pre-packaged food,” said Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School who has studied the rise of major food brands. “Before then, food wasn’t marketed.”

H.J. Heinz also had to convince consumers that his products were safe during an era before food was regulated. One way he tried to convey quality was to sell his goods in glass jars, so customers could see what was inside.

His choice of the word “variety” was another attempt to signal that Heinz was experienced in a range of products, suggesting to customers they could trust the brand.

“Variety has always been a thing Americans love,” said Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific. “They want choice. Even if it’s flavors of the same thing.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, Heinz was America’s largest ketchup manufacturer. The brand accounted for roughly 70% of the ketchup market last year, according to Euromonitor data. Hunt’s, its closet competitor, had 8%.

‘Comfort in the familiar’

The famous number has stuck around through more than a century of different advertising campaigns and changes to Heinz packaging.

It also survived different corporate owners. In 2013, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital bought H.J. Heinz. Two years later, Kraft Foods and H.J. Heinz merged, and the company was renamed Kraft Heinz.

“There’s a comfort in the familiar,” McGrath said. “Once you got something like that that sticks, people are reluctant to change because of the brand association.”

In 2009, Heinz changed the design of its ketchup label for the first time in more than 60 years, replacing the Gherkin pickle that was under the words “tomato ketchup” with a tomato on the vine. Noel Geoffrey, who oversaw the redesign, said there was never any consideration of removing 57 from the label.

But Emily Ruby, a curator at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and author of “57 Servings from the Heinz Table,” said she was surprised by the change because Heinz “stuck so long to these symbols of the past.”

When Kraft and Heinz merged in 2015, there was fear in Pittsburgh about losing the link between Heinz and the city. Kraft Heinz has co-headquarters in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

“There’s a sense the company is no longer tied to the history and the region,” she said. If Kraft Heinz were to drop the 57, “I think people would be really upset because they like the connection.”

Whenever Ruby gives local talks on H.J. Heinz or the history of the company, she is always asked about the origins of the number. People even offer up their own theories about its meaning.

“There’s still a lot of curiosity out there about it,” Ruby said.

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