Branding and the Girl in the Yellow Dress

In 1914 Morton Salt took the aphorism "It never rains but it pours" (meaning that when one bad thing happens, it's likely to be followed by other bad things), edited it down by one word and two syllables to "When it rains it pours" (which arguably says the same thing), and made it a tagline.

Putting a positive spin on the phrase, they used it to advertise that Morton Salt, the first table salt to be treated with an anti-caking agent, wouldn't clump or become brick-like even in the dampest weather. To bring the message home, the company introduced new packaging featuring the Morton Salt Girl, a child in a short, yellow dress, walking in the rain, an umbrella over her head and an open canister of Morton Salt cradled in her arm, NaCl flowing freely in her wake.

In the annals of branding, the Morton Salt Girl is a monumental achievement. She's been tweaked from time to time over the past century, but the company has wisely retained and respected her widely recognized identity. Consumers know her as the symbol of a name brand, quality table salt. When we buy the canister with her picture on it, we feel that salt-wise, we're not only going first class, but we're also buying what our forebears bought, and we take satisfaction in doing so at very little cost over generic and store-brand salts.

Today, coming up with an iconic brand or image as powerful and enduring as the Morton Salt Girl would involve numerous marketing firms, focus groups, test markets, and millions of dollars --with no guarantee that the outcome would still be commercially viable six months down the road, much less for a century.

On Friday, Sept. 26, Morton Salt celebrated the centenary of the umbrella-toting girl with a gathering on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, in the plaza just south of the Tribune Tower. Passersby could have their pictures taken with an umbrella in the Morton Salt Girl photo booth, or relax on salt-white couches while enjoying salty popcorn and bottled water. Graphics cycled on a ten-foot-tall digitized blue canister featuring the latest incarnation of the Morton Salt Girl, sparkling and shimmering in the sunlight.

Acquired in 2009 by K+S, a German company, Morton Salt remains headquartered in Chicago, where it has a history of supporting the arts. The Morton Wing of the Art Institute? Named for benefactor Sterling Morton, the only son of Joy Morton, the entrepreneur who took over the company and gave it his name in 1889.

Continuing this tradition, Morton marked the one-hundredth birthday of the Morton Salt Girl by awarding a hundred one-thousand-dollar scholarships to students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Kendall College, fifty at each school.

Having been awarded of one of those scholarships, my daughter, in her third year at SAIC, accepted an invitation to showcase and work on her art during the afternoon at the Morton Salt Girl centenary venue. Fifty scholarship recipients were invited, four RSVP'd, two showed. EJ, wearing a yellow dress, and one other person spent two hours drawing and painting and getting sunburned as tourists snapped pics of their work. A drunk guy quizzed her about salt mines, which do not fall within her areas of expertise. He asserted that there were miles of salt mines under the city. He must've thought he was in Detroit or Cleveland.

At 6:30, Rahm Emmanuel made a brief speech. It was good of him to show up. Early that morning, a disgruntled employee had set fire to the Aurora air traffic control center, leading to the cancellation of thousands of flights at O'Hare and Midway, affecting travelers all over the world. This was the FAA's problem, but still, in spite of perfect weather that showcased all that is great about Chicago, the mayor was probably having a less than stellar day.

The crowd grew with the arrival of scholarship recipients from both institutions and people who just wanted to find out what was going on. Following Emmanuel's speech, we circulated. We had a conversation with Dave, who was executing the graphics for the event. He'd seen EJ painting away in the sun that afternoon, and he offered encouragement and advice. "You have to develop and promote your brand," he said.

Food had been prepared. We stood in line; picked up plates of salty steak sandwiches, strange pizza cubes and salted caramel mini cupcakes; almost tripped over a large, brown men's pull-on shoe, randomly left on the pavement ("There's a story there," I said); and then listened as Christian Herrmann, Morton's CEO, took the podium to speak in slightly accented English about the company's commitment to the arts and education.

"I love it," my daughter whispered. "He's British."

"No," I said, wondering how my offspring, who proudly bears her late father's German surname, could be so mistaken. "He's German."

"He's German," she said. "I love it."

Mr. Herrmann awarded two gigantic cardboard checks, one to SAIC and one to Kendall College. The scholarship recipients from SAIC posed with the big check, held by an administrator whose name I did not catch, taking photos with one another's phones while the giant digital Morton Salt canister scrolled through their names.

I had no idea that my daughter had always dreamed of posing with a giant, fake check, and it had never occurred to me that she, as an artist, is growing into what will become her own brand.

And then, lugging an IKEA bag full of art supplies that weighed the equivalent of twenty canisters of Morton Salt, we walked away into the perfect, unseasonably warm evening and headed for the Blue Line, tired and happy, both of us the Morton Salt Girl's unlikely new BFFs.