Looking at the history of Vachon and its small cakes is like looking at the history of modern marketing, but in a sweeter light. A modest brand from the Beauce between the two Great Wars, it became a truly national company in the 70s. For our readers in Ontario, Vachon most likely satisfied your sweet tooth as much as ours! For its products to end up in our baskets, Vachon skillfully deployed the full arsenal of marketing methods available to the company. Today, we can benefit from that major lesson in branding!
Word of Mouth (Viral and Guerilla Marketing for Millennials)
In its early days, Vachon successfully leveraged word of mouth. During the Second World War, the brand offered free cakes to a group of soldiers. In the following weeks, Vachon received orders from Vancouver to Halifax, and even in Europe. As a result, soldiers in the Canadian Army accounted for 30% of the company’s revenue during this time.
Changing Vachon’s Look and Visibility
In the 1950s, the company wanted to change its look. They called in Samuel Fogel, a consultant and head of a marketing firm in the Montreal area.
For Vachon, it was imperative for the packaging to respect 4 criteria:
- Make it easier to identify Vachon products;
- Be easy to open and close;
- Offer protection during delivery;
- Preserve freshness.
To change the brand’s look, they opted for soft, pastel colours, which were avant-garde and very fashionable at the time. They also decided to make some changes to the packaging illustrations, designed to capture the consumer’s attention, and above all, make the consumer want to eat cake! May West cakes are certainly no stranger to this strategy.
The logo also saw a change in the ‘50s.
From the original yellow and black diamond-shape, it was radically updated to a “V” topped with a pastry chef’s head; V for Vachon, not Victory as Churchill would have thought. This reinforced the brand’s identity.
The mention “Sainte-Marie. Co. Beauce,” which portrayed Vachon as a more regional company, disappeared at the same time. The company also started to distribute its products nationally and added city names to delivery trucks in Montréal, Toronto, Québec and Halifax. As well as on its delivery trucks, the new logo was found on all packaging and product cases.
Over the years, slight rebranding was done to keep the brand young and relevant, but never abandoning Vachon’s heritage.
One of the company’s weaknesses was a lack of advertising visibility. Instead, to make the brand know, Vachon relied heavily on quality and above all word of mouth, if not mouth-to-mouth.
Sometimes, the company ran an ad in the newspapers or on a billboard, but nothing more. With minimal radio and television presence, competitors had room to grow and quickly take Vachon off the consumer radar.
Vachon had a great deal of difficulty breaking into the Montréal market, and after several tough years, the company quietly established itself. In 1954, the founder of the CJMS radio station in Montréal offered holiday advertising to Joseph, one of the Vachon brothers. During commercial breaks, you could hear several advertisements about their delicious tasting cakes!
TV and Movie Associations
After a few difficult years, in 1990, Vachon rebounds in the hearts and mouths of consumers through television and movie associations. Vachon sponsored the production of movies like La Grenouille et la Baleine (1988) and Les Aventuriers du timbre perdu (1988), as well as TV series Au nom du père et du fils (broadcast on TVA from 1993 to 1995), and as René Lévesque (airing on TVA in 1994).
With a rolling pin, the bakery then hits it out of the park with “La Petite Vie” on Radio-Canada from 1993 to 1998. The company becomes the main sponsor of a program with over 3 million viewers per week. This provided extraordinary brand visibility, as ads repeated during the mythical program’s commercial breaks.
Although ad integration dated back to the 1950s and 60s, with tobacco in particular, “main sponsorships” were typically reserved for major events like hockey night or the Bye Bye. Vachon brought this practice up-to-date by applying it to drama and “modern” TV.
Advertising and Visibility
Montréal’s Expo 67 presented a great opportunity for global visibility and Vachon responded with branded kiosks and trucks. This initiative, now called brand activation, enabled the rest of the world to discover this Québec company.
Recognizing that humour attracts and sells in Québec (e.g Pepsi and Claude Meunier), in 1986, Vachon created ads depicting at-first commonplace situations, but ending up with humourous scenarios of someone enjoying a Vachon cake. Jos Louis, Ah Caramel! and Passion Flakie are the star products of these ads.
Innovation and Brand Extension: New Recipes
The New Cakes Are a Hit
In 1932, competition was fierce and Vachon wanted to quickly set itself apart, especially after several years of difficult economic times. Vachon created “the” cake that would become the company’s image, Jos Louis.
Jos Louis was officially launched in 1939, when the Great American boxer Joe Louis was at the top of his career. Vachon took advantage of the boxer’s popularity to sell its small cakes but avoided paying royalties because of this one-letter difference. Another good move that didn’t cost anything! May West and Mae West…Vachon knew how to leverage the alphabet.
In 1950 (via the acquisition of the famous Grenache company, for the older people amongst us), the company acquired Diamant Ltd, which specialized in caramel spreads and jams. Initially bought to supply Vachon’s main plant, the products decided to introduce a new line of products, marketed and sold externally. In the years following, numbers other line extensions like peanut butter, cocoa power and honey were then developed.
Other Products Didn’t Fare as Well…
In 1986, Vachon decided to launch variants of its famous cakes as ice-cream cakes. A great opportunity for Vachon to target a market that was nearly untapped at the time in Québec. Market testing done during the summer was conclusive and sales objectives even doubled, so the company embarked on developing new infrastructures. In 1987, Vachon officially launched ice-cream version of its most popular products: Milles Feuilles, Ah Caramel!, Puff O Fruit and Jos Louis. Unfortunately, the frozen dessert adventure did not last long, as refrigerated distribution was not Vachon’s strength at that time.
A Good Corporate Citizen: Health and Trans Fat
In and around 1992, with increased presence in the media, Vachon cake sales reached record highs with resounding new product successes: Rice Krispies Squares and the Hop & Go line.
Vachon was again ahead of the trend in reducing the use of trans fat in prepared products. In the 1990s, Vachon started making “low fat” products. In 1996, Vachon was focussing on a low-fat Brownie, and cutting the fat content of its famous 1/2 Moon and proverbial Jos Louis. An idea that pays off from a marketing and sales perspective; same price, same taste, but being better for your health! Positioning to attract a clientele that wanted a treat while watching their waistlines!
From Vachon’s “rich” history, we’ve learned that the ends justify the means. From word-of-mouth, sponsorships, brand identity exercises, and logo re-branding, the company has always and continues to be on the lookout for new sales tactics (for example, its Treat Selector, broadly inspired by the SAQ’s Taste Tags). A drive which helped the company conquer the small cake market, one Jos Louis at a time.
L’histoire des p’tits gâteaux Vachon 1923-1999, Dave Corriveau
Photo Credit :
Francis Vachon, The Canadian Press Images