Initially Unloved, Now Iconic: Vegemite Marks 100 Years

Born out of imitation in the 1920s, Vegemite has reached the century mark after becoming a beloved Australian icon.

Date: 22-10-2023 00:00

Initially Unloved, Now Iconic: Vegemite Marks 100 Years

At first glance, a jar of black paste made of brewer’s yeast by-product mixed with salt, celery and onion might not be a top contender for a cultural touchstone.

But 100 years after it was first developed by Cyril Callister in Port Melbourne as an imitation of British spread Marmite, Vegemite is a staple in every supermarket across the nation.

Graeme Hughes, the director of Griffith University’s Business Lab, said the brand’s consistent communications and marketing strategy had helped to keep the unlikely product as a mainstay of Australian culture.

“It’s a really positive and uplifting brand – you think of the jingle, it’s impressed into their communications and they have built on that legacy,” he said, describing Vegemite as one of the nation’s fundamental brands alongside Tim Tams.

“They’ve done a really good job in being consistent in their product and branding, and they haven’t swayed too far away from where they started.”

Mr Hughes labels it a “Swiss army knife” of a product, with a variety of usages: from a condiment with avocado on toast to an addition to gravy to impart umami.

In 1926, three years after it was developed, Vegemite was sold to American company Kraft Foods, which later became Mondelez International.

Kraft oversaw decades of Vegemite’s history including the first broadcast of the “Happy Little Vegemite” jingle in 1964, as well as medical endorsements for the product’s high levels of vitamin B and folate.

In 2017, Australian dairy producers Bega Group purchased multiple Kraft assets in a $460 million deal that returned Vegemite to Australian ownership.

The group’s marketing manager, Matt Gray, said the company planned to keep the product relevant to consumers by collaborating with other brands, as well as focusing on making it a cooking staple.

Over 20 million jars of Vegemite are sold in Australia each year, with the official 100th anniversary on October 25.

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Fans dressed in Vegemite t-shirts to support local favourite Ash Barty at the Australian Open. Photo: AAP

Jono Lineen, a curator at the National Museum of Australia, said the product was uniquely Australian.

“Vegemite’s pretty special because I don’t think that there’s really any other nation that has a paste quite like that, that’s so deeply associated with the national identity,” he said.

Mr Lineen noted that while many Asian cultures have salty and bitter pastes used in cooking, there was rarely a single brand that encompassed such a sense of home.

“When Australians go overseas, what do they bring with them?

“So many of them bring a jar of Vegemite.”

For businessman Fred Walker, the instigator and funder behind Dr Callister’s chemistry experiment, decades of love for an initially unpopular product has led to a place in Australian cultural history.

Consumers initially failed to take to Vegemite until a promotional campaign that advertised the spread and Kraft cheese together kickstarted sales in the 1930s.

“That’s a long time for a businessman to subsidise a product that wasn’t selling,” Mr Lineen said.

“Maybe he loved the taste of Vegemite, we will never know.

“There had to be something about it that really captured him.”


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