Remember Vin Fiz? A 100 Year-Old Lesson in Brands & Web Marketing

Posted by Corey Smith on Sep 15, 2016 9:15:00 AM

vin fiz

In 1911, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hurst made an offer of $50,000 to the first person who could fly a plane from New York to LA in under 30 consecutive days. Calbraith "Cal" Perry Rogers took up the challenge.

Of course, Cal didn't have any money. He had the plane, but in the "good ole days" an airplane required a very large support crew. So, he started talking to businesses about possible sponsorship and was able to secure a sponsorship from Amour and Company for the 1911 Wright Flyer. The company had created a new grape soft drink and wanted to get the word out.

The Vin Fiz Flyer was born. Emblazoned with the logo for Vin Fiz and messages of "Drink Vin Fiz" and "Ideal Grape Drink," Cal began his journey across North America from Sheepshead Bay, New York on September 17, 1911. Not to be outdone, all of the support train cars, paid for by Armour and Company, also sported messages of "Drink Vin Fiz."

Of course, none of this changed the fact that the grape soda advertised as the "Sparkling Grape Drink" did not even come close to living up to its purported luster.

People described the joy of drinking Vin Fiz:

"Tastes like a cross between river water (sludge) and horse slop."

"It has a laxative effect."

And my favorite, "You have to sneak up on it to get it down."

Over the course of the next 56 days, Cal seemed to crash his way across the country more than fly. He crashed so significantly that there were very few original parts left on the plane when he finally made it to LA. 

On November 12, 1911, Cal took off from Pasadena, California in front of a crowd of some 20,00 people (all recognizing the Vin Fiz logo), but a crash in Compton gave him a concussion and a twisted spine. He spent three weeks in the hospital recovering and finally finished his journey, landing in Long Beach, California on December 10, 1911 (54 days after he no longer qualified for the prize) with only about 82 hours spent in the air.

On top of the prestige of being the first person to fly across North America, Cal was paid $23,000 by Armour and Company. Even though he didn't win the prize of $50,000, he was at least paid well for the effort. To put that number into perspective, the median household income in 1911 was approximately $2,500.

Unfortunately, a few months later, Cal was taking a test flight in Long Beach, not far from the end of his historic flight, when he flew into a flock of seagulls and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, breaking his neck and dying. It was a sad end to an almost happy story.

You may be wondering, "What happened to Vin Fiz?"

Well, it simply went away. The amount of money put into launching the product and advertising the "SPARKLING Grape Drink sold at all Soda Fountains" never really took off (yeah, I get the pun). No one liked it. They all knew about it, but it tasted so bad that people didn't buy much.


A100 Year-Old Lesson

Search the internet today, and you'll find website after website on the Vin Fiz Flyer. In fact, it is immortalized in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Multiple books talk about the Vin Fiz Flyer, but little is said about the Vin Fiz Grape Drink.

There are two lessons to learn from this story. For aviation and the Wright Brothers, this event was a spectacular success. Even for Cal, this journey was great for him and his career. Remember, Cal didn't have any money to fund his flight; he had to get help and was able to sell his vision to Armour and Company. What he did was rally people to his cause as evidenced by more than 20,000 people that were with him when he left Pasadena. This was in a time of no internet, no text messages and no television. Cal was wildly successful, even though he fell short of his goal

Vin Fiz, on the other hand, was a miserable failure. As this story illustrates, no amount of money spent will overcome a bad brand. No matter how much brand awareness you get, no matter how many people know about you or your business, you will never overcome the problems inherent in a bad product or service. The Vin Fiz Flyer was an opportunity that would only come once. There would only be one first for a plane to fly across the United States. In today's language, it was a cause that went viral. Armour and Company had some of the right elements to make their brand a huge success, namely money and visibility. The problem was that the product was bad.

How Does This Apply to Web Marketing?

The reality of marketing today--including web marketing--is that it is no different than it was 100 years ago. The core tenets of marketing never change. You must have a strong product and great visibility, and your business and product have to mean something to your audience. These principles make up the foundation of brands, and the web has made the importance of doing this right even greater.

Your web presence (website, social media pages, etc.) allows you the opportunity to market in more ways than ever. Your web presence is an amplifier of who you are; it is a way to show your brand in a new, different and innovative way. If you try to hide who you are, like in the case of the Vin Fiz Grape Drink, it will only come back to haunt you. No amount of window dressing, colorful graphics or platitudes of how wonderful you are will ever mask the reality that is your brand. As the CEO, you have the opportunity to bring your brand to your client or customer in ways never thought of before--it starts with you.


Want more entertaining lessons in web marketing? Get the entire book on the foundational approach to web marketing!

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Corey Smith

Written by Corey Smith

Corey Smith is the founder of Tribute Media and serves as the Digital Marketing Strategist. He is also the author of "Do It Right: A CEO's Guide to Web Strategy" and "Tweet It Right: A CEO's Guide to Twitter."

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