A Creativity Lesson From Betty Crocker

Subtracting an essential element creates unexpected value.

In the 1950s, General Mills launched a line of cake mixes under the famous Betty Crocker brand. The cake mixes included all the dry ingredients in the package, plus milk and eggs in powdered form. All you needed was to add water, mix it all together, and stick the pan in the oven. For busy homemakers, it saved time and effort, and the recipe was virtually error-free. General Mills had a sure winner on its hands.

Or so it thought. Despite the many benefits of the new product, it did not sell well. Even the iconic and trusted Betty Crocker brand could not convince homemakers to adopt the new product.

General Mills brought in a team of psychologists. Something unusual was going on. The company needed to make its next move very carefully if it was going to get this product off the ground.

Why were consumers resisting it? The short answer: guilt. The psychologists concluded that average American housewives felt bad using the product despite its convenience. It saved so much time and effort when compared with the traditional cake baking routine that they felt they were deceiving their husbands and guests. In fact, the cake tasted so good that people thought women were spending hours baking. Women felt guilty about getting more credit than they deserved. So they stopped using the product.

General Mills had to act fast. Like most marketing-minded companies, it might have considered an advertising campaign to address the guilt issue head-on, for example. Imagine a series of commercials explaining that saving time in the kitchen with instant cake mixes allowed housewives to do other valuable things for their families. The commercials would show how smart it was to use such an innovative product.

Against all marketing conventional wisdom, General Mills revised the product instead, making it less convenient. The housewife was charged with adding water and a real egg to the ingredients, creating the perception that the powdered egg had been subtracted. General Mills relaunched the new product with the slogan “Add an Egg.” Sales of Betty Crocker instant cake mix soared.

Why would such a simple thing have such a large effect? First, doing a little more work made women feel less guilty while still saving time. Also, the extra work meant that women had invested time and effort in the process, creating a sense of ownership. The simple act of replacing the powdered egg with a real egg made the creation of the cake more fulfilling and meaningful. You could even argue that an egg has connotations of life and birth, and that the housewife “gives birth” to her tasty creation. Okay, that may sound a bit far-fetched. But you can’t argue that this new approach changed everything.

Betty Crocker’s egg teaches us a powerful lesson about consumer psychology. Many other companies sell goods and services that come prepackaged. They too might be able to innovate with the "subtraction technique" by taking out a key component and adding back a little activity for the consumer.

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