Vegemite, the iconic and distinctively Australian food product, was officially born on 13 June 1923, when jars of the dark brown yeast-based spread were released into the market place.
The story of its development is an interesting one, beginning with shortages of the British based Marmite spread during and immediately following World War One. Fred Walker, the entrepreneurial chairman of his own food import and export company, proposed to fill this gap with a spread of his own and hired the chemist and food technologist Cyril Callister to investigate. Callister’s brief was to produce a tasty spread for toast and sandwiches based on yeast extract that could be obtained as a waste product from the breweries.
After considerable experimentation Callister produced a dark, tasty and readily “spreadable” paste that was long lasting and rich in Vitamin B. Walker began a public competition to name the product and he eventually settled on “Vegemite” – a suggestion from his own daughter.
Vegemite hit the shelves in 1923 but the product did not sell well, having to compete against the long established “Marmite”. A brand re-launch was tried in 1928 – called “Parwill”, with the advertising tag: “If Marmite – then Parwill”, but this did not help sales. A turning point came in 1937 when substantial prizes were offered in a limerick competition – the product was renamed Vegemite again and the brand went national.
A huge breakthrough came in 1939 when the British Medical Journal endorsed Vegemite as a healthy product, rich in Vitamin B and nutritionally balanced, and this was the impetus for marketing the product as health giving. This received a considerable boost during World War 2, when the Armed Forces purchased bulk supplies because of its long lasting and nutritional characteristics.
By the end of the War Vegemite was established as an Australian food staple, enhanced during the 1950’s by a highly effective television marketing campaign showing a number of children marching, dancing and singing to an infectious jingle called “Happy Little Vegemites”. This phrase became part of the Australian idiom, with groups of contented, cheerful people often described as “happy little Vegemites”.
One of the great success stories of the Australian food industry, around 22 million jars of Vegemite are sold each year, with the popularity of the product holding up well after more than 90 years of manufacture.
Image: Vegemite on toast – a beloved Australian breakfast spread for the last 70 years. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.