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How Insinkerator Marketed Itself to the Top of the Food Chain

The original garbage disposal

How much do you know about your garbage disposal?

You may flip it on once or twice a day and not even think about how cool it is to be able to grind up food scraps.

You may not know that your garbage disposal is a crucial tool in decreasing the amount of food waste that goes into our landfills and generates methane gas, contributing to climate change.

You might live in New York City where garbage disposals weren’t allowed until 1997 and are still considered an amenity, valuable in real estate.

Maybe you aren’t aware that garbage disposals are a uniquely American invention, not used in other parts of the world.

But you’ve probably heard of the “Insinkerator,” a recognized brand name more than 80 years after its invention.

Any company that you can name more than eighty years after its launch achieved brand awareness through great marketing. (The corollary is that NO company survives almost a century without great marketing.)

Here’s how Insinkerator marketed itself and shot to the top of the food chain.

No one likes taking out the trash!

It was 1927. It’s unclear where the idea for the garbage disposal came about. Some accounts say that John Hammes of Racine, Wisconsin hated taking out the trash. You can’t blame him. No one really likes taking out the trash, and he had to do it in a blustery northern climate.

Other accounts claim that John Hammes watched his wife wrapping scraps up and bundling them into old newspapers, making packets to be carried out to the trash. He thought there had to be a faster, more efficient way.

John Hammes was a smart guy. He grew up on a farm in Iowa and eventually moved to Racine as a building contractor overseeing the construction and renovation of old buildings into useable, modern spaces for apartments and retail stores. Racine, Wisconsin, at one point in Hammes’ career, credited him with overseeing 85% of the city’s apartment complexes.

Backed by years of construction projects and successful city projects, Hammes applied for a Wisconsin Architect’s License in 1931 and received it. Two years later, in 1933, Hammes became the city architect for Racine.

During all that time, Hammes was putting his brain to work solving a simple household problem. How can food garbage be more easily disposed of?

His answer was the “Insinkerator,” a container attached to the drain under the sink where electric-powered blades ground food into tiny particles that could then be washed into the sewer with water.

The patent proves it

Funny thing about inventions and innovations. Sometimes multiple people are working on the same idea unbeknownst to each other. Sometimes, word leaks out about a contraption someone is developing, and someone else takes the idea and runs with it.

John Hammes’ “Insinkerator” is no exception to questions of origin.

In 1927, Hammes began working on his garbage disposal in his basement workshop. He fiddled with it, refined it, tested it, and modified it over and over until applying for a patent in 1931.

He even created a cesspool in his backyard where he could test the results of his Insinkerator’s grinding ability. He’d put on hip waders and get into the middle of the scuzzy water to measure the size of the remaining food particles.

Two years later, Hammes was granted a patent. While General Electric claims to have created the garbage disposal, the “Disposall,” and released it to the public in 1935, there’s no disputing that the official patent belongs to John Hammes, who received the patent in 1933, but didn’t form his company, Insinkerator until 1938. In the first year of operation, Insinkerator made and sold 52 units.

Lack of marketing resulted in a slow start

John Hammes and his two sons, Ev and Quentin, opened a manufacturing facility at a small building in Racine, but like most companies, Insinkerator faced unforeseen startup problems. Not only was a war looming, but people didn’t know about garbage disposals. It was a new product that people didn’t rush to adopt.

No matter how great the product is, if people don’t know about it, the company will fail. Companies that don’t prioritize marketing and who don’t designate startup capital for it, are less likely to succeed.

Business owners often fail to prepare for the marketing needs of a company in terms of capital required, prospect reach, and accurate conversion-ratio projections. — Investopedia

Like so many new businesses, Insinkerator had not put money aside for marketing in the beginning and had put most of its funds into the facility, leaving little, if any money for marketing. While Insinkerator did manufacture garbage disposal units for hospital ships, most of the company’s efforts during World War II years focused on making parts for the defense effort.

Timing is everything

After WWII, the economy boomed. Returning soldiers built houses, and the American dream became a reality.

With new construction, Insinkerator had a chance to grow. After the war, there was a shortage of housing because nothing had been built for several years. The danger and loss of life during the war caused people to long for safety and stability. For many, that meant rushing to build a home in the suburbs. In the decade following the Great War, more than 15 million new homes were being built.

All those new homes could now be equipped with cutting-edge kitchen accouterments like Insinkerator garbage disposals.

Emphasis on marketing resulted in growth and brand awareness

The American economy was booming and people had money to spend on new homes and modern kitchens. But if they didn’t know about the garbage disposal, all that prosperity wouldn’t help Insinkerator at all.

Enter Bob Cox.

Bob Cox was the Vice President of Sales for Insinkerator from 1948 until 1987, and he’s credited with popularizing the garbage disposal. The marketing strategies he used are “spot-on” for today’s marketing, each one of them a solid tactic for promoting your products or services.

How Bob Cox marketed Insinkerator to the top of the food chain

None of what Bob Cox did to promote Insinkerator’s garbage disposals was an obscure tactic. Instead, he utilized a strategy of multiple, tried-and-true techniques.

The cumulative effect of his marketing was the growth of a fledgling company into a powerhouse presence in the garbage disposal industry.

Here are the eight techniques he utilized — and that marketers everywhere can use today, too.

ONE: Dispell the opposition’s arguments

In the early days of garbage disposals, city officials didn’t completely trust the ability of garbage disposals to grind food up into small bits. They worried that big chunks of food would clog up their city’s sewer and many locations placed bans on garbage disposals.

How do you fight that kind of opposition?

One demonstration at a time.

Bob Cox began calling on sanitation and plumbing inspectors all over the country. He demonstrated the product, gave test results, and sold the units at cost to anybody willing to try one.

It took almost a decade, but cities began to lift their ban on garbage disposals after listening to Bob Cox’s rationale. (With the exception of New York City who didn’t lift the ban until 1997).

Great marketing and sales can turn the tide

Bob Cox did his job convincing cities that garbage disposals were not harmful to sewer systems. In fact, once those objections were overcome, many cities began to see the advantage of REQUIRING garbage disposals to be installed.

The first place to do so was in Bob Cox’s home state of Indiana. The small town of Jasper, Indiana was the first place to mandate garbage disposal installation in the 1960s. By doing so, they eliminated a lot of food waste in garbage cans and could reduce trash collection from two times per week to one time per week.

Today, many cities are requiring garbage disposals to be installed in new construction because decreasing the amount of food waste in landfills reduces the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere. Methane gas is one of the causes of climate change.

TWO: Optimize the point of sale

Bob Cox knew that more sales were crucial to the survival of the company. So instead of wholesaling to retail appliance dealers, Cox went to the people on the front lines: plumber contractors.

California gave the sales of Insinkerator a big boost when builders in the southern part of the south began to market garbage disposals as household conveniences, and the idea caught on.

Plumbers and builders were far more effective at selling garbage disposals than retail appliance stores ever would have been.

“Our consistent relationship with the plumber over the years has been, in my mind, the single key to our being able to outdistance our competitors.”

THREE: Utilize the power and personality of a direct sales force

By the end of World War II, other companies had picked up on the idea of the garbage disposal. In fact, eighteen different companies were marketing disposers, including big corporations like Whirlpool, General Electric, and KitchenAid.

Since much of Insinkerator’s strategy relied on convincing plumbers and sanitation engineers of the value of the garbage disposal, Bob Cox hired a direct sales force, enabling the company to directly talk to — and convince — the people who would buy the disposals and encourage their installation.

FOUR: Differentiate yourself from the competition

What do you do when dozens of other startup companies are marketing similar products to yours?

You differentiate yourself.

Insinkerator’s direct sales force spanned out over the country, visiting plumbers, inspectors, and city officials. They loaded dozens of 45-pound units in pink — YES, PINK — early 1950s Pontiac station wagons.

Mary Kay cosmetics may have used pink Cadillacs, but they were not the first to use the concept of pink cars. Certainly, pink station wagons helped differentiate Insinkerator from the other seventeen companies selling garbage disposals!

FIVE: “Give-to-get” philosophy

Nothing is free, right?

It takes money to make money, right?

Bob Cox believed in that philosophy.

Not only did he sell garbage disposal units at cost to anybody willing to try them, but he also put money into “free” offerings that helped market his product.

At a conference of the National Home Builders Association, Bob Cox hosted a FREE breakfast for anyone who would attend. Food is always a great inducement, and he used the opportunity to pitch his product.

SIX: Know your target audience

Bob Cox knew his target audience. While he was working to overcome the opposition of cities to garbage disposals, Cox was also strategizing about how to win over his target audience of female homeowners. They, after all, were the ones who ran the kitchens of America at the time.

So what do you do to attract the attention of your female, “homemaker” target audience in the 1950s?

You use pink cars, of course. You manufacture your products in five colors that matched the kitchen decor of the time. You create a catchy little jingle like, “Quick as a wink through any kitchen sink.”

Then you go to the groups where your target audience is and get them to pay attention to your product, and you “grease the wheel.” Bob Cox went to the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Assn. of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, knowing that the female backing of the garbage disposal (women who would influence the plumbing contractors in their lives) would be invaluable.

He was right. Ethel Epstein, a former president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, emphasized the astuteness of Cox’s approach:

“Bob had such a marvelous personality and gave us so many fine luncheons, scholarship programs and other things, that we simply told our husbands to begin installing In-Sink-Erators, and they all did.”

SEVEN: Get the biggest bang for your buck

Every marketer on earth knows about budget constraints. (Rare, indeed, if not extinct, is the marketer who is told to spend as much as she likes. “Money is no object” is not a phrase thrown about in marketing meetings.)

Bob Cox was no different. He did NOT have a lot of budget to work with, so he decided to get the biggest bang for his buck.

He purchased an advertisement in Vogue magazine, the decidedly upscale fashion magazine. The ad featured a stylish woman holding a bag of garbage.

The caption?

An alternative source says that the ad was captioned,

Either way, it was an effective ad and a great use of limited marketing dollars for the most impact.

EIGHT: Celebrity endorsements were just as effective then as they are now

Because Bob Cox understood publicity, he knew that unique and unusual advertising drew the attention of the media. Phyllis Diller, the wacky comedienne, became the spokesperson of Insinkerator praising garbage disposals as “leftover lovers.”

But the company didn’t stop there. They sought celebrity endorsements to build the Insinkerator brand with the seal of approval from Doris Day, Bob Barker, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and later, Billie Jean King, and Barbara Walters.

Eighty years later

Sadly, John Hammes died suddenly in 1953, just as Bob Cox was laying the foundation for growth of Hammes’ company. Hammes’ son, Ev, took over the company, overcoming problems with quality control and rising costs.

Ev Hammes pushed the company to develop lower-cost units, and eventually, Insinkerator was the first garbage disposal company to be able to offer a five-year warranty.

Quality-control issues were a blip on the radar for Insinkerator. From the very beginning in 1938, Hammes had created a reliable, sturdy disposal. In 1963, at least one of the original fifty-two units created twenty-five years before was still working.

Today, more and more cities are mandating the installation of garbage disposals. John Hammes’ Insinkerator company is now a division of Emerson Electric, and the leader in garbage disposal manufacturing.

More than 8 million garbage disposals are sold every year in the United States.

Marketing matters.


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