How a 147-Year-Old Brand Is ‘Resurrecting’ Its Founder on Instagram

J.R. Watkins is ghosting door-to-door via social

Headshot of Christopher Heine

J.R. Watkins, a 147-year-old packaged-goods marketer, has had its branded items on shelves nationwide for decades thanks to distribution deals with retail chains such as Walmart and Target. But many young adults are unaware of its hand cream, ground black pepper, cough medicine and many other products.

So with the help of its agency, Mithun, J.R. Watkins is putting more focus for the next three months on Instagram, where so many millennial consumers spend their time. The brand is having a little Halloween-appropriate fun with an effort dubbed #GhostMyPost, while resurrecting the likeness of its namesake founder, who died in 1911. The campaign leans on a series of photos and videos, while the long-departed Watkins makes a ghostly cameo—depicted by an actor—in people's homes.

"We are a heritage brand, and we have to look for a way to be a little bit disruptive," said J.R. Rigley, president and CMO for parent company Watkins Inc. "This strategy allows us to do that with new fans of our brand."

Of course, Watkins is known for door-to-door sales reps—J.R. Watkins himself was one. So that's a motif that Rigley's branding team has woven into the Instagram effort, which is being supported on its Facebook and Twitter pages with posts. 

"The best way to go door to door now is on Instagram," Rigley said. 

David Carter, chief creative officer at Mithun, said a problem for J.R. Watkins—and with some of its products, like black pepper, that just use the "Watkins" moniker—is that various people recognize its simple signature packaging but don't necessarily have name-brand recall. 

Which is part of the reason why "the brand is getting a lot more serious about social," Carter explained.

Despite its current fun endeavor, J.R. Watkins has its work cut out for it. The brand has only 2,300 Instagram followers as well as 5,300 on Twitter and 1,800 on Pinterest, while it does better on Facebook with 143,000 fans.

The Winona, Minn.-based company's social play isn't being supported with ads, a decision that other marketers see as a mistake. Since going live two weeks ago, #GhostThePost has received just 285 Instagram mentions, according to data pulled by ListenFirst Media.  

Jason Klein, co-CEO, ListenFirst Media, said, "One way the brand could accelerate adoption and further engagement could certainly be a paid media campaign on Instagram." 

J.R. Watkins' small social audiences make it hard for it to generate big buzz on organic marketing alone, suggested Dennis Yu, CTO of BlitzMetrics.

"It's not to say they couldn't be successful," Yu said. "They just need to find a strategy that drives engagement and then use ads to amplify that."

Meanwhile, the J.R. Watkins effort entails six Instagram video "chapters" for the first phase of the long-running effort. The fourth video goes live on Monday, and you can check out the first three clips below:

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.