Can’t Bake a Cake Without Eggs — What the cake mix industry teaches us about consumer mentality
Updated: Jan 3
Let’s set the scene, it’s my friend’s birthday and our group of friends is throwing him a surprise birthday party. My job is super simple, get the materials to make the cake. Frosting? Check. Candles? Check. Sprinkles? Check. Cake Mix? Check. I walked into the room, put the bag of items down, and just as I was about to walk away, I hear, “where are the eggs?”
You see, most cake mixes on the market, apparently come with everything you need except for the water and eggs. Now the water makes sense, but why don’t companies just put dried eggs in the mix?
Why make your consumers take the extra step of buying eggs?
Turns out, the answer is actually marketing-driven! When cake mixes were first invented, by a Pittsburgh company called P. Duff and Sons in the 1930s, they contained dried eggs. Duff followed the traditional convenience-driven mentality, the idea that consumers prioritize convenience and are willing to pay a premium for products that make their lives easier. Seeing that baking a cake from scratch was such a time-consuming task, Duff placed its bets on consumers valuing their time enough to purchase the cake-mix.
At first, this worked really well. Sales soared and, as with any new eye-catching product, other competitors like General Mills began to enter the market. Sales were soaring until the 1950s when they began to level-off. It seemed like cake mixes were just not getting any new customers. Now, we can cheat and look forward in time, kinda like skipping to the last page of a book, because we know that cake mixes are almost a kitchen staple in today’s world. So how did companies like General Mills and P. Duff & Sons turn things around?
In the most basic sense, dried eggs had a really strong taste, so much so, that consumers would complain their cakes tasted like dried eggs. Although, the thought process was deeper was just taste.
In 1933, Duff’s filed a US patent for a cake mix that got rid of dried eggs because, according to their application, “the housewife and the purchasing public, in general, seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered eggs is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.”
Then, in the 1950s when General Mills hired a team of psychologists, they reached the same conclusion! You see, even though the cake mixes saved time, the general consumer (housewives at the time) felt almost guilty because the cakes weren’t made from scratch and “with love.” By having consumers put in their own eggs, the companies gave the consumers back some control in the process.
Continuing with the idea of providing consumers with a feeling of control or inclusion in the process, cake mix companies began to advertise pictures of cakes with elaborate frosting designs. Pretty soon, the process of baking a cake was no longer just baking the actual cake, it included the decoration of the cake. Now, housewives actually appreciated the time saved in baking because it allowed them more time to create elaborate designs with the cakes!
This cake mix story sheds light to a few concepts:
Aim for convenience to the point of aid, not a replacement — When conversations of artificial intelligence occur, what is the biggest fear we hear? The fear that humans will be replaced. We know that similar to the internet, artificial intelligence will make human life easier. However, unlike artificial intelligence, the internet doesn’t replace humans, it helps us achieve more. When the cake mixes replaced the entire process for housewives, they felt guilty and rejected the product. However, when the cake mixes were seen as an aid to speed up baking so they could spend more time on decorating and making the cakes unique, cake mixes became a household staple.
Sometimes, if the correct subtraction occurs, less is more — By removing the dried eggs, the companies ran. Howe a risk of consumers being disappointed in having to take the extra step of buying eggs, the companies knew that consumers wanted control. So they didn’t remove the flour aspect or the yeast. They removed the aspect that tasted bad, no consumer’s going to complain that you remove something that tasted bad. However, on a deeper level, they removed the item that was already a staple in the household. In that era, similar to today’s, eggs are a household staple and 2 eggs out of a dozen weren’t going to cause people to riot.
Value is incredibly relative — When cake mixes were first sold, Duff’s thought that people would love how much time they saved! However, we saw that housewives felt guilty about saving that time. While Duff thought the value was saving time, their consumers valued the “love” and effort of baking a cake. Intelligently, rather than spending massive funds on ad campaigns to convince the housewives that saved time meant they could put their love on other things, Duff learned to view the product from its customer’s viewpoint. You might think that your product offers this amazing value to your customers, but if the customer doesn’t agree, the process of convincing can often be very tough. Instead, these companies learned to understand what their consumers valued, in this case, the feeling of being part of the process, and built around that. They gave housewives a task to complete within the baking and then extended the process to include decorating.
Personally, I love this story because the message and lessons extend beyond just cakes. This story covers important lessons about consumer behavior, marketing, and value framing. You see, even in today’s world, one of the biggest drivers behind most inventions is “oh, this makes people’s lives easier, it’s convenient!” and yet we repeatedly see cases where new innovations are rejected by consumers, only for simple feature changes to lead to mass adoption. For example, the failure of early smartphones in comparison to the iPhone’s success by removing components like the keypad.
Long story short, don’t forget to grab the eggs!