Given the variety of breads now available in Singapore, it may be hard for younger readers to realise that this choice was not always there. Gardenia was a pioneer in creating the tasty loaves we expect today. Prior to Gardenia, the only bread generally on sale in Singapore was white tasteless bread. This was fine to mop up chilli sauce but, as one ex-pat described it, the slice tasted like cardboard.
The story of Gardenia began in East Malaysia where a retired American baker came to pass on his skills to a small family grocery business. In the 1970’s an organisation International Executive Service Corporation based in the USA invited volunteers with professional skills to go overseas to help developing countries start new ventures or expand businesses. Horatio Sye Slocum, who became known as Uncle Slocum, came to Malaysia to pass on his baking skills to the Malaysian family and this became a regular visit. The daughter who had gone to Singapore to work married an advertising researcher called Roland Goh. When he visited his wife’s family store and bakery and tasted the soft, spongy bread made to an American recipe, he realised that there would be a market in Singapore for a bread of superior quality especially as more European expats were moving to Singapore during this period.
Roland Goh took over an old India bakery in 1978 and started distributing his bread in Bukit Timah Plaza, situated in an area heavy with ex-pats, customers who would be willing to pay a premium for a good loaf. Goh was correct and soon he had to find a bigger bakery to keep up with demand. Eventually, he build a new bakery and headquarters in Pandan Loop.
He called his bread Gardenia because it was his wife’s favourite flower.
The advertising agency was originally Adman, led by Eddie Chan, who had headed Meriden earlier. In those days, Singaporean’s admired Western brands and so the agency decided to capitalise on the American heritage and define a point of difference between local brand and Gardenia. The tag-line became “Singapore’s first American bakery.” The packaging featured blue and red to each the American flag and Uncle Slocum featured on the pack. McDonald’s had also just opened its first outlet so food from the USA was gaining popularity.
Goh had the courage to spend money on making and airing a TV commercial for the launch. To save costs, existing footage from American scenes were used heavily. A jingle, played in a country western style has the line “As American as apple pie.” Later on another line t eventually replaced the reference to an American bakery. Based in a chance remark, the line “So good you can even eat it on its own” became the new tagline, but the jingles with a Country Western feel continued. The main commercials were shot in Australia and usually featured Caucasian actors to maintain the brand image. Gardenia pushed the market leader Sunshine into second place within a few years. Sunshine fought back by improving its own product to match the American style of Gardenia.
Eddie Chan’s agency was eventually swallowed up by Monahan Dayman & Adams, which in turn was bought out by Mojo, and finally merged to become Chiat\Day\Mojo. When Chiat Day and Mojo pulled out of Asia, Chan and the other directors including Allein Moore bought it over and called it Standard CDM (Standard was a Japanese partner agency). Chan and Moore continued to work on the Gardenia bread account producing more commercials and helping Gardenia introduce many new varieties. Gardenia led the field in offering new varieties and a special festive season loaf.
Gardenia also was the first bakery to offer a plastic lock to keep the bread fresh and to offer date stamping to demonstrate that stocks were replaced each day. Roland Goh eventually sold out to Ben Foods, a move some said he regretted. He left the company shortly afterwards. Under the new management, headed by Dr Tan, the company continued to expand and went into Malaysia and Thailand. So strong was the brand influence, that Singaporeans would swear they saw Gardenia Bread while on American trips!