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Terri Lonier — Ph.D. Dissertation Research

In September 2009, Terri received her Ph.D. from New York University, where she held a five-year MacCracken Fellowship.

Her research explores the origins of food marketing and branding, and entrepreneurial opportunity recognition. It investigates how a group of entrepreneurs in the late 1800s transformed generic agricultural materials -- oats, sugar, and cottonseed oil -- into the high-revenue branded food products Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Crisco.

Below is the dissertation abstract. The full dissertation should be accessible online from UMI in early 2010.

Alchemy in Eden:
Entrepreneurialism, Branding, and Food Marketing
in the United States, 1880-1920


Through an investigation into the origins of American food marketing, this dissertation reveals how branding -- specifically, the centennial brands Quaker Oats®, Coca-Cola®, and Crisco® -- came to underpin much of today’s market-driven economy. It examines how, in a manner akin to alchemy, the entrepreneurs behind these three firms recognized the inherent value of an agricultural Eden, then found ways to convert common, low-cost agricultural goods — oats, sugar, and cottonseed oil — into appealing, high-revenue branded food products. In the process, these ventures devised new demand-driven business models that exploited technology and communications advances, enabling them to tap a nascent consumer culture. Their pioneering efforts generated unprecedented profits, laid the foundation for iconic billion-dollar brands, and changed forever how Americans make daily food choices.

This research proffers three theses to illuminate the development of branding during the pivotal years 1880 to 1920. A temporal thesis repositions the historic timeline of branding to decades earlier than generally recognized. A transcendent thesis argues that these companies moved beyond traditional naming practices to create brands that fueled desires and needs (both real and imagined) in a new economy of consumption. A transformative thesis contends that branding fulfilled a need in a mobile, diverse, and nationalizing society — a society that in turn was partially shaped by an economy dominated by national brands.

In exploring these theses, this research uncovers the early brand-building experiments in advertising, promotion, and packaging undertaken by the brands’ parent companies — Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble. It investigates how they gained credibility and bolstered their images by incorporating scientific knowledge and authoritative health professionals into their marketing. The research also analyzes the role of mass-circulation women’s magazines as a vital and influential link to the middle-class homemaker, the new gatekeeper of the household budget. Additionally, the research examines the competitive strategies each company employed to fend off attacks from fast-following rivals, including the aggressive legal defense of their brands, trademarks, and patents. A closing analysis of the lasting historical influence of branded industrialized food marketing suggests far-reaching implications for business and cultural historians as well as modern-day marketers and entrepreneurs.

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