The Genius Marketing Idea That Put Maxwell House On Every Passover Table

If you'll be attending a Passover Seder this year, chances are you'll be reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah—which is the perfect example of how to do branded content right.

Over 90 years ago, American Jews celebrated the Passover holiday by eating matzo and unleavened treats, but when they reached for a beverage they shunned coffee in favor of tea. It seems there wasn’t a coffee brand certified kosher for Passover. In 1923, Maxwell House saw an opportunity and introduced the first kosher for Passover coffee; others soon followed. Looking to solidify the brand in the minds of Jewish consumers in the early 1930s, Maxwell House’s ad agency employed an innovative marketing tactic for the time: branded content.

Well, that’s what we call it today. In fact, Maxwell House decided to publish a book, specifically a Haggadah, and offer it to customers for free with the purchase of a can of coffee. (A Haggadah recounts the Exodus from Egypt, comprised of prayers, songs, and stories which guide the Passover Seder.) The Maxwell House edition was an instant hit. Today, it’s the most popular Haggadah in the world, with over 50 million printed.

This Haggadah is so ubiquitous that it’s become difficult to find others. When I went to a Judaica shop in NYC looking to buy a nice set of Haggadahs, the salesperson suggested I hit the supermarket and pick up the Maxwell House edition: "They’re really good," she exclaimed.

Why has this piece of branded content endured generation after generation? Four underlining principles make the Maxwell House Haggadah the perfect case study in branded content:

1. Branded content must serve a consumer need. Maxwell House wasn’t distributing content for the sake of distributing content; most likely, the agency lead didn’t have a secret ambition to be a translator (or rabbi!). Instead, it began with a simple insight: Jewish families spend quality time around the Seder engaged with a Haggadah.

2. Branded content needs to add value. Before Maxwell House published its own, consumers purchased many different versions of Haggadahs. As the number of Seder guests grew, people needed to purchase or borrow additional books and find the right match. Maxwell House made it easier to bring family and friends together year after year with one common text.

3. Branded content should be organic, not intrusive. Besides the cover and introductions, Maxwell House’s Haggadah has no branding inside the book. A smart executive resisted the urge to have the Jews take a coffee break while fleeing the Pharaoh, or have Moses descend Mt. Sinai with the tablets in one hand and a latte in the other. They kept it simple, making sure that the brand enabled the content but didn’t interfere with it. Would we have the same restraint today?

4. Branded content should enable communities and establish new rituals. It seems obvious, but by embracing the Jewish community, Maxwell House was able to build brand loyalty with a targeted consumer segment. Today we think of this in terms of multi-cultural marketing. It’s a very powerful idea to bring something to a specific community, be woven into people’s rituals, and help establish new ones. For Jewish people, the ritual is a yearly pilgrimage to pick up new Haggadahs and Maxwell House coffee.

These four principles could easily be rephrased into questions when examining your own marketing plans. (My grandma would kill me if I attempted to rewrite the Haggadah).

Even in the age of social media, digital series, and custom apps, the Maxwell House Haggadah provides a great lesson in the right way to create content.

A tablet version of the Haggadah is probably in the works, where different portions are highlighted and distributed to those that are assigned the reading. But until that app takes over the world, the Maxwell House edition will be ingrained in Jewish culture. After all, it’s tradition!

Chet Fenster is the Managing Partner of MEC Entertainment, a division of MEC. He has no affiliation with Maxwell House or Kraft Foods, but seeing this in print will make his grandma kvell.

[Image: Flickr user Andreas Levers]

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2 Comments

  • Emanuel Harris

    Great and interesting information. I am not Jewish but have MANY Jewish friends and grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I recently got into the coffee business with a company who in 2009 did $9m in sales and just last year in 2012 did $300+m in sales. This may be some valuable information as far as moving forward for me. We are in 33 countries, so any information you may have on any other cultures-keep it coming!! Better yet I can be reached at eharris501@hotmail.com