Before The PSL, Apple Cider Donuts Were The Original Fall Marketing Gimmick

What we’ve learned from the origins of our favorite fall treat

Long before coffee that tastes like pumpkins and candles that smell like sweaters, a shadowy organization with dubious intentions created the original autumnal marketing gimmick:

The apple cider donut.

The apple cider donut entered the mainstream in the early ’50s thanks to the Doughnut Corporation of America, which *switches flashlight on under chin* doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Not much is known about the DCA, other than that it was founded in the 1920s by Adolph Levitt, an enterprising Russian immigrant. According to Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, he created a chain of donut shops, and developed a donut-making machine and standardized mix of ingredients to sell to other bakeries. He also stunted on everybody and came up with National Donut Month before Twitter was even a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye. But as more efficient donut-making machines have been invented and better donut recipes created, the sweet, sweet apple cider donut is the only one of the now-defunct DCA’s creations that has stood the test of time.

From a 1951 New York Times article, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine:

A new type of product, the Sweet Cider Doughnut, will be introduced by the Doughnut Corporation of America in its twenty-third annual campaign this fall to increase doughnut sales. The new item is a spicy round cake that is expected to have a natural fall appeal.

With that in mind, here are a few things marketers can learn from the great Donut Disruption of the early ‘50s.

Pay attention to audience behavior

Apple cider and donuts have long been a classic food pairing (see: Farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean). And the beauty of the donut is its unique suitability for dipping; unlike other pastries, the donut is structurally sound enough to handle a hearty dunk into a cup of coffee or hot apple cider.

Rather than playing it safe with recognizable flavors — your powdered sugars, your jellies, your maple logs — the visionaries at DCA noted the connection between cider and donut and combined both.

Create a narrative

Let’s get back to that “natural fall appeal.” The beauty of the apple cider donut is its instant emotional connection to the cozy, blissful days of autumn. Forget dead leaves and impending winter gloom; people eat up the idea of apple cider donuts because it reminds them of trips to the apple orchard, hayrides, fall foliage, and sweater weather (all the better to hide the results of many cider donuts).

For these reasons, apple cider donuts have succeeded where other combination stunt foods have failed. Unlike bacon milkshakes or Mountain-Dew-flavored chicken wings, apple cider donuts are rooted in something ancient: the arrival of fall. Also, they photograph better for Instagram.

Make sure there are no holes in your story

The apple cider donut wasn’t the Doughnut Corporation of America’s first marketing gimmick. In 1946, it engaged in a bit of dishonest health-food marketing with the introduction of the Vitamin Donut.

This very real product purported to be a good source of Vitamin B “for pep and vigor,” but the U.S. government’s War Food Administration shut that down. On the other hand, apple cider donuts don’t purport to be anything other than a tasty fall treat, and they deliver on that promise.

What could be sweeter than that?

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