The Secret Histories of 25 Popular Brands
Through advertising, companies build brands consumers feel they can trust, but it's not always in their best interest to tell the whole truth. Many of the seemingly unimpeachable brands we encounter everyday conceal questionable labor practices and company origins that might make buyers reconsider purchasing their products. The following are some of the most recognizable brand names whose histories are surprising, disturbing or just downright bizarre.
Physician and staunch Seventh-day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg invented Corn Flakes not to provide Americans a new balanced breakfast option, but to curb their sexual desires, which he saw as physically and spiritually detrimental — masturbation in particular. Kellogg created the cereal while working as medical director of Battle Creek Sanitarium, believing richer foods would increase sexual desire while plainer foods would lessen it. It was Kellogg's bookkeeper brother Will who added sugar and poured money into advertising, eventually winning the title of Kellogg Company from his inventor brother in the Michigan Supreme Court.
The ubiquitous soft drink beloved by kids and adults around the world began as a caffeine- and cocaine-infused wine invented to ease its founder's Civil War-induced morphine addiction. Former Confederate General John Pemberton was forced to create a non-alcoholic version, which he based on the emerging carbonated soda market and catered to consumer tastes, after Atlanta passed prohibition measures in 1886. The cocaine was removed in 1903, but the caffeine, derived from African kola nuts, remains.
The name Mountain Dew isn't a reference to damp morning conditions at high elevations, but rather a Prohibition-era slang term for moonshine. The neon-green caffeinated soda we know today actually got its start in Knoxville in 1932 as a lemon-lime soda, developed by brothers Barney and Ally Hartman to serve as a mixer with whiskey when their preferred pop wasn't available.
How did a 19th century revivalist religious commune turn into one of the world's largest tableware companies? The perfectionist movement emphasizing the possibility of release from sin had a founder and prophet figure in John Humphrey Noyes, who advocated group marriage, birth control, "mutual criticism," and communism (i.e. shared property) among his followers. To escape persecution, Noyes bought 23 acres of land in Oneida, New York in the 1840s, but the community faltered in 1876 when he left control to his agnostic son Theodore. Outside opposition and community divisions led the Oneida Community to dissolve by 1881, while their business assets were reorganized into a joint stock venture.
Lululemon is a trendy, yoga-inspired athletic wear company that's made at least three appearances on Fortune's Fastest Growing Companies list, once in the same year they recalled a batch of black yoga pants for "an unacceptable level of sheerness" (translation: they were see-through). Despite its urbane image, the company has been plagued by controversies including poor quality control, false advertising claims that their clothes were made from seaweed, bags printed with the phrase "Who Is John Galt?" in reference to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and founder Chip Wilson's statement that he came up with the company's name because he thought it would be funny watching Japanese people pronounce it.
The beer that's been literally rebranded as "America" actually traces back to Bohemia in the Czech Republic, where locals have been brewing Budejovicky Budvar — translating to Budweiser — since the 13th century. The Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Budweiser, on the other hand, originated in 19th century St. Louis by German transplant Adolphus Busch, who admitted in 1896 his idea "was simply to brew a beer similar in quality, color, flavor, and taste to the beer then made at Budweis." This blatant appropriation has led to decades of lawsuits and appeals cases between the global brewing giant and the Czechs' state-owned Budejovicky Budvar, so which has claim to the name Budweiser still varies by nation.
One of Adolf Hitler's only projects still going strong in modern Germany is the Volkswagen. The idea for an affordable "people's car" predated the Third Reich leader, but Hitler directed their production with a new factory and surrounding community — now called Wolfsburg — as part of his government's promise to care for average citizens. The Nazi's early model, called the "KdF-Wagen" (short for "Kraft durch Freude," or "strength through joy") and featuring a swastika in its logo, largely halted production during World War II, but the factory was restarted under British occupation to stimulate the depressed postwar economy.
In 1888, the German-engineered Benz motor vehicle got a leg up in the early automotive industry thanks to founder Karl Benz's wife Bertha, who traversed 66 miles in what's now known as the world's first road trip to boost publicity and prove that gas-powered cars were reliable. The company's history grows more troubled through the 30s and 40s when Hitler was known to ride in a Mercedes Benz outfitted with bulletproof glass. Also in this period, the Daimler-Benz company forced thousands into labor programs to fuel the Nazi war effort, for which they were forced to pay $12 million in reparations in 1988.
German auto companies aren't the only ones with old Nazi ties they'd prefer to keep private. In 1937, influential industrialist and vocal anti-Semite Henry Ford became the first American recipient of the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, signifying the mutual admiration between Ford and Hitler, who regarded the automaker as an "inspiration" for his nationalized production methods. Along with General Motors, the Ford auto company has come under legal fire for supplying integral economic support to Nazi Germany at the outbreak World War II when their subsidiaries controlled 70 percent of the German car market and retooled themselves to adequately supply the Reich Army.
In the early days of pizza delivery, powerhouse Domino's founder Tom Monaghan bartered a Volkswagen Beetle for his brother James's half of the company. But the most bizarre part of Domino's history isn't how Monaghan gained control of the business, but what he's done with its spoils. On top of forming political action groups to campaign against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, Monaghan has also used his fortune to found a Catholic law university and town in Florida called Ave Maria, where the town's only OB/GYN reportedly refuses to prescribe contraception medication and Monaghan and the town's developing company, as the largest landowners, can decide the town's governing body and not the voters.
Video game developer and Sonic the Hedgehog-originator Sega started as Standard Games in 1940, providing coin-operated slot machines to Hawaiian military bases like Pearl Harbor. When the U.S. outlawed the machines in 1952, founder Marty Bromley started importing them to the emerging Japanese market under the updated name of Service Games, later merging with another American-owned Japanese venture called Rosen Enterprises and transitioning to game manufacturing to replace pinball flippers and other parts. The company adopted new technological innovations to develop their first video arcade game in 1966.
Stock car racing is the largest spectator sport in America today, but got its start as a covert competition between Appalachian bootleggers transporting loads of illegal moonshine. These drivers modified the engines and cargo capacity of their vehicles to better handle the twisty mountain roads on liquor runs. Soon enough, these modified cars became a point of pride raced at local fairgrounds for spectators to observe, and the illicit liquor trade — which continued in many municipalities with post-Prohibition alcohol restrictions — continued to play a pivotal, often problematic role in NASCAR's early days.
Athletic footwear giants Adidas and Puma were preceded by the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company, whose founders Adolf and Rudolph Dassler became embroiled in Nazi politics and paranoia in World War II. While Adolf rebuilt the business selling shoes to American G.I.s, Rudolph languished in Axis and then Allied POW camps, believing his brother to have conscripted him in the army for business purposes. The brothers and former Nazi Party-members split their venture in 1948 and built opposing companies on either side of the river Aurach — Adidas by Adolf, and Puma by Rudolph. Their rivalry was reportedly so bitter that marrying across company lines was forbidden and other local businesses catered specifically to Puma or Adidas supporters. The two companies concluded their near-Biblical sibling feud with an intercompany soccer match in 2009.
Would you ever guess one of the world's largest smartphone producers started out selling dried fish and noodles? Founder Lee Byung-chul started Samsung as a small trading company and exporter emphasizing local groceries in 1938, but the company diversified into a wide range of industries including textiles and life insurance in the 1950s and 60s. Their electronics division started in 1969 making black-and-white TVs and grew to define the business in the 1980s.
T.G.I. Friday's founder Alan Stillman didn't start his restaurant chain with the goal of serving the best food (shocker, right?), but of meeting women. In 1965, Stillman saw opening a bar as the easiest way to meet some of the single airline attendants and models moving into his Manhattan neighborhood, while also giving drinkers a permanent establishment to fraternize at outside of the private cocktail parties or male-dominated beer bars that were then all the rage. Opened in 1965 — just two years after female contraceptive pills became commercially available — the eatery now known for work parties and excessively cheesy appetizers is regarded by some as having played a pivotal part of ushering the sexual revolution into urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Nike was founded in 1964 and built a successful business model outsourcing manufacturing to cheap East Asian labor sources. Reports of inequitable sweatshop-like conditions and child labor in Nike factories were confirmed in 1992, but it still took another 10 years for the company to start auditing its factories for abuses. Another disturbing facet of Nike history is the origin of its famous slogan, "Just Do It," which ad-exec Dan Wieden supposedly derived from the last words of murderer Gary Gilmore just before facing his firing squad, "Let's do it."
Listerine was developed as a surgical antiseptic and general-use germicide in the 1880s, but the product only became widely known in 1920s thanks to an aggressive campaign marketing it as the cure for a made-up medical condition. Ads framed "chronic halitosis" as a plague of bad breath preventing men and women from finding partners and leading healthy social lives and Listerine as the unrivaled solution, helping company revenues climb from $115,000 to more than $8 million in seven years.
Though not as juicy as some of the other origin stories on this list, it still boggles the mind to learn that the world's largest hotel chain best known for luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton began as a humble root beer stand in 1927. It wasn't for another 30 years that the founders added a motor hotel to their portfolio of 56 restaurants.
Ingvar Kamprad founded a mail-order company called IKEA in 1943, with one of his first employees being an Austrian Jew seeking refuge from Nazi rule. At the same time, Kamprad was an ardent member and recruiter for Sweden's own Nazi-aligned fascist party during World War II and in 1948 bankrolled the publication of leader Per Engdahl's political manifesto. Despite spending his later years downplaying his Nazi sympathies as youthful stupidity, Kamprad still maintained in a 2011 interview that Engdahl was a "great man."
For decades, Nestle, the world's largest food company, used deceptive marketing to get Third World mothers hooked on their powdered infant formula, ignoring studies that show using solely breast milk increases children's chance of survival sixfold. Among other practices, the company sent out sales representatives in nurses' uniforms and subsidized hospitals in exchange for pushing their baby formula to new mothers. U.S. Agency for International Development official Dr. Stephen Joseph said overreliance on formula caused roughly one million infant deaths per year from malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. This led to the creation of an international code for marketing breast-milk substitutes in 1981, though some still accuse Nestle of not complying.
The Germany subsidiary of American computer company International Business Machines, or IBM, played an integral and profitable role in executing Hitler's plan to disenfranchise and execute tens of thousands of Jews within the Third Reich. According to journalist Edwin Black's 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust, the company's censuses and punch cards gave Nazis the organizational foundation needed to catalog such "undesirable" populations and ensure their systematic destruction, leasing custom-designed IBM card sorting operations to concentration camps and training Nazi officers on their proper use.
Formerly United Fruit, Chiquita is a multinational corporation responsible for making bananas one of the world's foremost food staples, and all it took was decades of financing violent and repressive Central American regimes, or "banana republics," to do so. Since rebranding as Chiquita in 1990, the company has paid nearly $2 million to right-wing death squads in Colombia and lobbied against a 9/11 Victim's Bill to avoid paying liabilities for aiding and abetting terrorist groups in foreign countries.
Luxury menswear company Hugo Boss is another surviving company that once aligned itself with the Nazi Party, as revealed by a list of dormant Swiss bank accounts released in 1997. The company's founder and namesake joined the Party in 1931 and two years later began producing Nazi uniforms, causing a huge increase in sales. During the war, their factories employed 140 mostly-female forced laborers and 40 French prisoners-of-war.
Taco Bell founder Glen Bell got his start in fast food selling hot dogs and hamburgers. When his business languished in comparison to Mexican restaurant Mitla Cafe across the street, Bell became a regular there and reverse-engineered a less authentic, Americanized version of their hard-shelled tacos to offer at his next stand, called Taco-Tia. His next venture was Taco Bell in 1962, helping to popularize Mexican food (or some version of it) throughout the U.S. Tellingly, the chain's two efforts to open franchises in Mexico have both ended in failure.
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