Content Marketing Lessons from an 80-Year Old Branded Religious Text

passover seder religious branded text

By Seth Kaufman, freelance writer, editor, and content strategist

An offer you can't not reuse

One of the most successful branded content promotions in history involves not old media, but ancient media – religious text. 

Branded religious text. 

I’m talking about the ‘Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah’ promotion. A Passover Haggadah is a booklet used to conduct a Seder service (think Thanksgiving-sized dinners with lots of matzoh). Over the last 80 years, Maxwell House has distributed more than 50 million copies of its Haggadahs across America, including 12 copies at my mother’s house.

There are lessons about branding, serving the customer, and creating valuable written content to be drawn from the promotion. But to fully appreciate them, a brief telling of the story of the Maxwell House Haggadah is in order.

 

The longest-running sales promotion in history

 

In 1923, Joseph Jacob, a longtime newspaper ad salesman talked the Tennessee-based owners of Maxwell House Coffee into running a campaign in the Jewish press. Jacob saw a market opportunity to build awareness of the brand and increase coffee sales. 

To borrow Moses’ famous line to the Pharaoh, Jacob wanted Maxwell House “to let my people know” that they could drink coffee during the eight days of Passover.

 

If Maxwell House could help make Jews aware coffee was kosher for Passover, it  would drive additional sales.

 

Jacobs thought this was a good advertising peg because during the eight days of Passover, eating leavened bread or legumes is forbidden. But despite their name, coffee beans are actually seeds, not legumes. Therefore, coffee is kosher for Passover. Many stores in Jewish neighborhoods mistakenly hid their coffee, believing it was banned. If Maxwell House could help make Jews aware coffee was kosher for Passover, it would drive additional sales. 

First, Jacob got a rabbi to certify it was permissible to drink coffee during the holiday. Then, he saturated the Jewish press with ads for Maxwell House’s newly deemed kosher-for-Passover coffee.

Sales spiked. But Jacob was just warming up. 

About ten years later, he launched the Maxwell House Haggadah, a booklet written in English and Hebrew, to accompany Seders and help families recount the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. 

 

 Photo credit: VozIsNeias

Photo credit: VozIsNeias


The words “Maxwell House Coffee” appeared on the cover and inside and the subtly branded Haggadah was positioned in grocery stores as a buy-one-get-one promotion. Customers would buy a can of coffee and get a free Haggadah. The coffee and booklets flew off the shelves. 

Many editions and millions of copies later, this promotion still goes on today. The give-away  captured its targeted demographic and according to Maxwell House (and my mother), became the top-selling coffee in Jewish households. 

There are many reasons for the campaign’s success, from America’s growing population of Jews to the point-of-purchase offer. But ultimately, it gave the targeted user something out of the ordinary with a strong perceived value: a roadmap to celebrating a popular religious holiday that was reused year after year. 

 

 Photo Credit: Washington Examiner  

Photo Credit: Washington Examiner
 

 

Lessons for content writers

 

The Haggadah promotion should be an inspiration to content writers everywhere and an object lesson in imparting value. Sure, you can put a price on an offer, but giving a customer something that is tied to a ritual and connects family can transcend dollar value. 

Of course, writers face limitations in imparting value. Most assignments don’t give you license to initiate buy-one-get-one offers. But writers can create valuable content for end users in the form of newsletters, PDFs, email reminders, and even free apps. Here are three lessons from Jacob’s work:

 

Create an offer that can be annualized and ritualized.  Maxwell House trots out its Haggadah every Passover. Can you create your own content that’s pegged to an event and has a long-term use? 

Build an emotional connection with the consumer. By offering a booklet for a family-oriented holiday, the Maxwell House brand is instantly tied to family, feasts, and freedom – all positive associations that any brand would covet.

Reinventing the wheel is fine, as long as everyone wants your wheel.  The Maxwell House Haggadah was not the first-ever published Passover text. But ad man Jacob combined it with a point-of-sale offer and education about the true nature of coffee beans. In this way, it was new and gave consumers something they didn’t realize they needed.   

 

So when you create content, think about the reader and consider these questions:

  • What content can you create that might connect them to their family or a ritual?
  • What would they love that they aren’t aware of, or have forgotten they love?
  • What unique branded content fits those criteria? 

 

 Photo Credit: The New York Times

Photo Credit: The New York Times

 

Here are a few off-the-cuff content ideas that create value by combining utility, connectivity, interactivity, and seasonality:

 

  • A food or booze-related company targets young adults with a cocktail ritual tied to a holiday or gatherings.
  • In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, a fitness site issues a humorous list of ‘Do’s & Don’ts for couples who work out together.
  • A cleaning app or service publishes an annual ‘Spring Cleaning Scavenger Hunt’ that’s a soft sell for hired help.
  • An enterprise software offers an IT professional’s guide to surviving conference season. 

 

Finding the right valuable content takes time. But once it begins to resonate with your readers, refine it and repeat it. If the connection is strong, the offer will last as long as the tradition. 

From time to time, you’ll need to revisit and refresh the offer. But as Maxwell House might say, your readers will appreciate the occasional refill.  


Read more work by Seth: Why Great Writers Don’t Leave Content Strategy Up To Their Clients