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• Leo Burnett was born in 1891 in Michigan. His father ran a dry goods store and Burnett often watched his father create ads for the store. Burnett earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and then went to work as a reporter for a newspaper in Peoria, Illinois.
• In 1917 he moved to Detroit to work for the Cadillac corporation, where he edited their publications, ran their publicity department, and became the head of advertising. Later he went to work for an advertising agency in Indianapolis, where he learned the difference between a “hard sell” and a “soft sell” and decided that it was best to use the “warm sell.” When the Great Depression began in 1930, the agency was hit hard. By then, Burnett had a wife and a family to support.
• In 1930 he went to work for a Chicago ad agency, where he spent the next five years. He found that he objected to their hard-sell methods, as did some of his clients.
• In 1935, Burnett sold his home, cashed in his insurance policies, and borrowed from banks. With $50,000 as working capital, he quit his job and opened his own firm, calling it the Leo Burnett Company, Inc. He started out with eight employees, one accountant, and three clients. One of those clients was the Minnesota Valley Canning Company.
• The Minnesota Valley Canning Company was trying to market a new variety of pea. This pea was sweeter than normal peas. However, this type was large and wrinkled, and consumers were accustomed to peas that were small and smooth. Store managers refused to stock it, so the company decided to emphasize the pea’s size. The company designed a gnome-like pagan harvest god to hawk the virtues of the product.
• Later, Leo Burnett was commissioned to fine tune and update the logo. After experimenting with green painted men and a green rubber-skinned puppet, a new advertising mascot was settled on: the Jolly Green Giant. The peas were so successful that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company renamed itself the Green Giant Company. The Jolly Green Giant is one of the most recognizable figures in American advertising.
• It was Burnett’s antagonism toward slick big city ads that convinced him to use models that looked like ordinary people instead of movie stars. This idea led him to use rugged sunburned cowboys in Marlboro cigarette ads. At the time, filtered cigarettes were not considered masculine, and only ladies smoked them. Their Marlboro market share was only 1%. Burnett created the character of a cowboy, which exuded masculinity. Sales increased dramatically and soon it became the number one cigarette brand in the U.S.
• These successes led to many others. If you’re familiar with Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, the Maytag Repairman, the Pillsbury Doughboy, or the Keebler Elves, or if you ever “Fly the Friendly Skies” with United or find yourself in “Good Hands with Allstate” – that was Leo Burnett.
• Burnett died in 1971, but today the advertising agency he built has more than 9,000 employees in over 85 global offices, making it one of the largest ad agencies in the world. For the first years of the company, its annual income was $1 million, but the company’s income grew rapidly, and by the end of the 1950s, his company earned around $100 million annually. In 1999, Burnett was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.