His heart is thudding. The air is viscous, reeking of sweat and the Vietnamese jungle. He jogs through the mud, eyes darting back and forth through the shadowy green. As his troop nears the base there’s only one thing that can get him across to safety, only one line that will officially identify him as an Australian. Clutching his gun, he clears his throat and whistles… “I like Aeroplane Jelly, Aeroplane Jelly for meeeeeee!”

Now that’s what I call pervasive branding.

As well as reportedly being used as an unofficial password in the Vietnam War, the jaunty Aeroplane Jelly jingle has seeped its sugary tune into the subconscious of this country’s history, and is said to be as recognisable as the Australian anthem.

This year, Aeroplane Jelly celebrates its 80-year anniversary – an enviable feat for any company, made even more commendable by the fact that the product’s original image and branding has remained successful for the entirety of its history. Few could have predicted that a product which is essentially wobbly, coloured gloop, could be a marketing triumph, with an unassailable image appealing as much today as it did in the 1920s. Many attribute this success to creator, Bert Appleroth.

“The original owner of Aeroplane Jelly strongly believed in the power of advertising and it has played a key role in establishing Aeroplane Jelly as one of Australia’s iconic brands,” says Stuart Redman, national marketing manager of McCormick Foods Australia. Appleroth’s core belief was the importance of diversifying his advertising, from radio to television to extreme publicity stunts like dropping jelly from aeroplanes across Sydney’s beaches.

The founder of this household name began as a humble Sydney tram conductor, stirring up jelly crystals in his home bathtub to sell on his tram route. Overwhelmed by the popularity of his jelly crystals, he quit his job as tram conductor, rented out a shed in Paddington and began a life devoted to jelly. Appleroth was a keen aviation fan, and in 1927, when aeroplanes epitomised all that was modern and exciting, he launched his little jelly business under the name Aeroplane Jelly. The success that transpired was perhaps not indicative of Australia’s love for jelly so much as the power of an effective advertising campaign.

Back in 1930, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the very first recording of the Aeroplane Jelly song crackled out from radios throughout Sydney, broadcast by radio station 2KY. This original jingle was written by Appleroth’s business partner (and later managing director of Aeroplane Jelly), Albert Francis Lenertz, along with a musical pianist. A little ahead of his time, Appleroth was one of the very first to establish saturation campaigns on radio with his jingle and sponsored ads. That same Sydney radio station, 2KY, ran an Aeroplane Jelly ad every single week for 30 years. In fact, during the 1940s, the jingle was aired on Sydney radio stations one hundred times a day. Despite jelly being considered a summer product, the company would negotiate volume-based discounts on its advertising spend on account of a signed 12-month contract.

In an even greater effort to monopolise the market, Aeroplane Jelly pioneered the concept of ‘roadblocking’, buying the entire advertising time on all radio stations or TV stations in a market within a certain time period. The company arranged for its radio advertising roadblock to run on Sunday afternoon from 12.30pm to 1pm, during which time every Sydney radio station carried the Aeroplane Jelly Show, a program featuring various singers and actors and constant reference to the brand. In light of this, it’s a wonder Australian children at the time consumed anything but jelly!

In the past year and a half the company’s marketing team agreed that in spite of the many images and themes linked with the brand, there is nothing stronger than Australia’s association with this song. “One of the main things that we’ve recognised, and made the key change or focus moving forward, is really leveraging the power of the Aeroplane Jelly jingle,” says Redman. “There’s been a realisation that the jingle is something that over the last 80 years has been an enduring element.”

But the brand was not solely dependent on its precious jingle. The logo of a box aeroplane flying across the Sydney skyline was introduced in 1936. Then during the late 1930s and early 1940s, etched mirrors were installed at railway stations, eight of which are still around today. Later, the company sponsored comic pages for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph.

Little did Appleroth know at the time, his brand was just about to skyrocket even further and hit the jackpot with the angelic voice of five-year old Joy King. In the same year that Aeroplane Jelly hired its first advertising agent, Reg Hepworth (who remained with the company for 40 years), a talent quest was held to unearth the perfect voice to sing the famous jingle in a series of commercials. It is said that over 200 children auditioned for the honour, but King was chosen “for her broad appeal”. The tiny star was made to record the tune 15 times before the company was happy with the result. So great was the public’s response to this song that later in 1966, the jingle ‘I like Aeroplane Jelly’ was recorded in Greek, Italian, Russian and Yugoslav, representing one of the first campaigns in Australia to directly incorporate ethnic groups.

One of King’s fellow contenders at the talent quest was nine-year old Tommy Dawes, who was later recruited for the role of ‘whistling boy’, which featured on all packaging.

Appleroth was adamant that his brand be represented in every available medium. He zoned in on cinema advertising, screening Bertie the Aeroplane and Bertie the Jet at intervals; the jingle’s lyrics were plastered onto the sides of milk bottles; the company frequently sponsored events such as jelly eating competitions; and in 1956 ‘Girl on swing’ and ‘Bertie’ commercials appeared on television.

By 1987, the advertising campaigns were still working their magic, so much so that the company simply continued using the old black and white print ads, revamped with a touch of colour, using the ‘paintbox’ technique on certain parts of the picture. Subsequent marketers for Aeroplane Jelly have also been able to sit back and reap the rewards of earlier advertising, with campaigns like the Memorabilia Hunt for old packaging and advertisements in 2000.

For the 80th anniversary celebrations this year, Aeroplane Jelly has already hosted a national schools promotion, inviting primary school students to create a new flying character for the jelly gang. The winning character – Melody the Messenger Plane – will be introduced into advertising campaigns over the next few months. “We communicated the promotion via a direct mail campaign to 8000 schools nationally and proceeds from the schools that entered were donated to Angel Flight Australia,” says Redman. These flying characters have unique traits, such as Prissy the Prop Plane, who’s allegedly hot for Bertie, and a decidedly camp Horatio the Hot Air Balloon, who’s rumoured to be the ‘gentleman of the skies’.

The original shiny-nosed character of Bertie the Aeroplane even gets his own event – Bertie’s Big Birthday Bash – held in New South Wales and Victoria in October. “It will be an invitation only event,” says Redman. “Kids can win tickets via a K-Zone and Total Girl website/magazine competition.” The event includes everything from Jelly Idol and jelly eating competitions to plane rides and paper plane competitions.

“Bertie the Aeroplane, named after the creator Bert Appleroth, has been the key mascot and character for Aeroplane Jelly since the 1940s,” says Redman. “To this day, Bertie appears on packaging, in cinema advertising, on the website and features in three adventure storybooks. As part of this year’s celebrations, Bertie was also brought to life for the very first time.”

One would assume that 80 years of a single product, which has undergone extremely little change in terms of taste, appearance or target audience, would demand a myriad of brand developments, image makeovers and tagline experiments. However, with Aeroplane Jelly there was no need. “While the executions have changed and evolved with the times, Aeroplane Jelly’s core brand positioning of family, fun and social is as strong today as it was in 1927,” affirms Redman.

“In more recent years, with the creative that you see in our cinema and radio advertising, we’ve tried to keep consistent with the use of the jingle but modernise the visuals,” Redman adds. “We also don’t want to go too far away from the original kind of cartoon element that’s associated with Bertie the Aeroplane.”

Despite the brand’s solid 80-year history, the concept of selling Aeroplane Jelly solely as a product of nostalgia alone wouldn’t necessarily appeal to such a young target market. Redman is confident the jingle, combined with the strong themes of fun and family, can attract fresh generations without prior awareness of the brand’s history. However this generation cycle does employ nostalgia as a catalyst. “Our core target audience is still mothers with children under the age of 12,” explains Redman. “That element hasn’t changed. What’s fabulous, of course, is that when parents or grandparents take their children to the cinema, they are exposed to the jingle and it reignites those wonderful memories of either sitting around the kitchen table having jelly as a kid or now, moving forward, they’re reminiscing and having those experiences with their own kids.”

The marketing team has in recent years tended towards a more interactive method of promotion. Australians were asked to vote for the new 20th flavour in the range; competitions were held in schools for sculpting an Australian landmark out of jelly; and a singing competition was run through national primary schools to find a version of the jingle – be it rap, pop, punk or multilingual – to combine with the original Joy King score for a radio ad.

“I think that is exactly where the brand needs to be – interacting with consumers,” says Virginia Peake, senior brand manager of Aeroplane. “We have chosen cinema advertising in the last year and a half because it’s a time when parents and children can be together. We see that as interactive because they are going to the cinema as a family and experiencing the brand together.”

One thing seems certain, those running the show are highly sensitive to the fact that they have a popular product and secure position in the market and if it ain’t broke – don’t alter the recipe. “Very little has changed in regard to the formula of Aeroplane Jelly,” says Redman. “In more recent times we’ve expanded to sell desserts out of the chilled section, which is a relatively new thing for us. Obviously it opens up a whole range of opportunities in the future, if that is successful.”

On the whole, it seems that when McCormick Foods bought Aeroplane Jelly in 1994, it not only purchased a brand and a product, but a veritable slice of Australian history.