May 19, 2011
To look at these tins of baking powder, one might imagine three very different brands. Indeed, their designs reference three distinct origin stories and each has its regional loyalists. Their contents, however, are all manufactured in an aging Terre Haute, Indiana, factory owned by Hulman & Co.
Granted, there are subtle variations in the formulas. In addition to Sodium Bicarbonate, a universal basic ingredient, Clabber girl uses Sodium Aluminum Sulfate as its acidic element. Rumford uses Monocalcium Phosphate. There are minor differences in the performance of each, but who really knows. They all make the biscuits rise. It speaks to the power of branding to step in when real distinctions are invisible.
In this day of multinational conglomerates, where brands are traded back and forth as intellectual property, consolidation should not come as a surprise. The efficiencies of scale! Yet somehow, this baking powder revelation got a rise out of me. Clabber Girl acquired the Rumford brand (along with KC and Hearth Club) in 1950. For more than 60 years, people have been choosing red tins with a man’s silhouette over white tins with the Gibson girl, or vice versa, because “that one’s the best” or “the other doesn’t work right.” All the while both camps have been sending their money back to Terre Haute, where the Hulman family has invested in their other great interest: they own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.