The Mama Of All Digital Brands

March 27, 2012 12:15 pm

When Mama was born online on March 1, 1995, the web was in its infancy.

In HTML 1.0, you couldn’t place text next to graphics. You couldn’t center type. Or use tables, or background colors or patterns. Creatively, there was more you couldn’t do than things you could do.

But then, led by a visionary client at Unilever (Alicia Rockmore and her team) and partnered with Larry Smith and the web development team at Fry, I created the first consumer packaged goods site in history for Ragú.

Mama’s Cucina.

Unilever Ragu Mama's Cucina

Mama Changed Everything

Mama proved that on the web — despite its visual limitations — you could create a compelling brand voice. Mama became a warm and funny virtual Italian grandmother for the world. The website looks primitive by today’s standards, but back in 1995 Mama brought a lot to the table. The Ragú site pioneered a set of best practices that are now commonplace:

  • The first brand site to use a consumer-friendly URL (eat.com) instead of a brand URL
  • The first brand site to offer recipes online
  • The first site with an authentic, distinctive brand voice (years before this was “discovered” as a best practice in social media). Even the legal disclaimer read, “Mama’s nephew, Peter, the lawyer, wrote this next part”
  • The first brand site to use content marketing: art and architecture, consumer-generated stories, photos from Italy, and special offers. All the photos from Italy were from my honeymoon, and all the “special offers” were leftovers in Unilever’s storage rooms from past promotions. But people loved it anyway.
  • The first email loyalty program (we used email to let people know when the next coupon FSI would drop in the Sunday paper, back when everybody still read the Sunday paper) — and one of the first online sweepstakes.

Mama’s personality was based in large part on my beloved mother-in-law. She’s German, not Italian. But she’s an incredible cook with a big heart and a bottomless pot in her kitchen. No matter how many people appear at her door she can magically feed them all and still have leftovers.

This web site was my first digital creative project, and a true labor of love. I wrote every word of the site, and laid out the original site-map crawling around my living room floor re-arranging scraps of paper. I even designed the team t-shirt for the brand group at Unilever. If you weren’t around in the earliest days of the web — or you just miss your Mama –here’s a gallery of screen shots from the site.

3 Comments

  • Peter D

    The revelation that was Eat.com single-handedly made me transition from Lynx as my browser to Netscape…with the images actually *on*.
    Think of what tomcunniff.com can do for you, today!

  • Megan Ankerson

    Tom, it’s so great to see these screenshot online. I appreciate your reflections on this site, and of course, I’ll forever be a fan of Mama and eat.com

    • Tom Cunniff

      Thanks Megan! In some ways I think Mama was ahead of her time. She’d be so perfect for Facebook, Twitter and all kinds of content marketing today. Maybe Unilever will bring her back 🙂

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