Packaged yeast extract, 'Vegemite', glass / plastic / paper, made by Kraft Foods Limited, Australia, 1991
This is an example of the packaging used for Vegemite in 1991.
Vegemite is a yeast and vegetable extract that is one of Australia's most enduring icons. Vegemite has enjoyed 'Australian icon' status since World War II when it was recognised as one of the world's highest food sources of vitamin B. It was sent to war with the troops and rationed at home. The marketing strategy that put Vegemite in 9 out of every 10 Australian homes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s emphasised the value of Vegemite to children's health.
Since the 1930s it has been a major part of this country's cuisine. Yet unlike other Australian icons which have been successfully employed to identify and showcase this country to the rest of the world - such as beach culture, koalas and the rugged outback - the attraction of Vegemite has remained local. Indeed its specific appeal to Australians' palate has added to its status as a badge of national identity.
In this respect the history of Vegemite is a fascinating story of the relationship of Australian industry and culture to global business and marketing.
In 1918 successful Melbourne merchant and industrialist Fred Walker, whose business Fred Walker and Co included the manufacture of the British beef stock drink Bonox, was hard hit by the changes in world trade that followed the First World War. In 1922 or 1923 Walker enlisted chemist Percy Callister to develop a paste-like extract that combined brewer's yeast with vegetables. The result was called Vegemite. It appeared in Australian shops in 1923 and 1924.
Australians had been using the British-made yeast and beef extract, Marmite, as a sandwich spread or cooking condiment since 1910. Vegemite competed directly with that product. By 1928, however, Marmite was outselling its Australian rival and Walker decided to change the name of his product to Parwill so that a new advertising campaign could be mounted based upon the slogan 'If Marmite, Parwill!'. The result was unsuccessful and the name Vegemite was recalled.
Earlier, in 1925, Walker had arranged with the Chicago firm of James L. Kraft to make processed cheese in Australia. A company called the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was established alongside Fred Walker and Co. In 1935 Walker used the success of his processed cheese to launch a new campaign to revive Vegemite. Redemption coupons for Vegemite were put in cheese packets to encourage consumption. The campaign was a great success and sales of Vegemite soared.
Apart from a reduction in salt content, following health concerns in the 1980s, the recipe has changed very little since production began. In keeping with earlier promotions, there is a continued emphasis on the high Vitamin B content of the product. To this was added the description 'All natural'. Vegemite is used today more as a spread than a cooking condiment.
The continuity of the product is particularly interesting in light of the corporate history. When Fred Walker died in 1935 the American company, Kraft, absorbed its Australian co-partner. Over the next 50 years Kraft Foods Inc. became one of the world's largest manufacturers of processed food. In the late 1980s the company was bought by a multinational company, Philip Morris, which then changed its own name to Altria in 2002. In 2007 Altria divested all its shares in Kraft Foods and the company that makes Vegemite once again became a fully independent company. In April 2007 it listed and started trading on the New York Stock Exchange as a global organisation with shareholders around the world. Despite this global ownership, Vegemite is still made in Australia to a secret formula. Over the years the taste has remained consistently reliable, and one that Australians love.
Kraft Foods itself has a keen sense of the significance of Vegemite to Australians and the product is frequently promoted with reference to its historical associations. The museum's collection includes various types of containers used by the manufacturers of Vegemite between 1923 and 1991.