Every July 4th, Americans take so much joy from a lie that’s become one of our most beloved traditions. This one lie has created:

1️⃣. A $280M business.

2️⃣. 40,000 fans watching the spectacle in person.

3️⃣. And another million glued to their TVs. 

When you think “American”, you think “Hamburgers and Hot Dogs”. But 60 years ago, hot dogs were what people thought Golden Retrievers were in the sun.

This is the story of how that all changed, when 4 immigrants turned one of America’s most beloved holidays into a Marketing stunt, and the hidden lessons in building brand hype that you can apply to your Marketing campaigns today.

Legend has it that on the 4th of July in 1916, on Coney Island, four Polish immigrants decided to settle a heated debate of who was the most American.

How did they settle the debate?

A hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous Coney Island hot dog stand, of course.

These Polish immigrants ran to their hot dog stand in Coney Island in between the 4th of July parade and fireworks. With big letters draped on the side, the stand read Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs.

The 4 immigrants set a 15 minute timer and got chewing. 

Jim Mullen, aka the Joey Chestnut before Joey Chestnut, came out on top. The contest was so bizarre that it generated buzz in the papers, Coney Island goers were eager to see a repeat.

What ensued was an annual hot dog eating contest at that very Coney Island stand.

The contest continued to transcend “just eating hot dogs”. It was a cultural event, people from all over the US would come to see contestants eat more hot dogs in one sitting than I have in my entire life.

As a protest to the war in Europe in 1941 and in 1971 because of civil unrest, the annual contest was protested. The hot dog contest became a symbol, and Nathan’s was using it to promote change.

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But there’s just one tiny asterisk, none of that actually happened. There is ZERO evidence of a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest before 1972. Yet, that entire backstory that I just ran you through is the EXACT backstory Nathan’s sells to their customers.

So is this a pretty elaborate lie orrrrr is it a genius Marketing move? I’m leaning towards a genius Marketing move, hear me out for a second…

Believe it or not, until the 1970s, the hot dog was a foreign food to Americans. 

Loved by German and Polish immigrants, the hot dog was not a common food in the average Americans palette. Knowing how Americans operate, Nathan Handwerker saw an opportunity to introduce the food in the U.S. 

So he decided to align his brand, the contest, and hot dogs with the 4th of July, America’s holiday, hosting a hot dog eating contest every year on the 4th to get Americans to enjoy hot dogs with the first launching in 1972.

This worked like a charm, other hot dog brands were desperately trying to ketchup.

And that’s the true story of when the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest was born.

So why does Nathan’s Famous continue to market the fake story as their very own origin? Tradition. Credibility. Imagination. Magic. A good ‘ole legend.

Consumers want to believe in magic, so let them. The legend of Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest pulled on so many fundamental human tendencies. Think Hercules, Tarzan, and Atlantis. Legends are a unique way to dive deep into underlying psychological themes and conflicts your brand encompasses and solves. 

Just like Tarzan is an affirmation for life, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is a symbol of someone’s true American roots. 

If this story of Nathan’s Famous was told in any other fashion than a legend, consumers would laugh. 

You’re telling me a 7 inch hot dog determines someone’s patriotism? Plz. But wait, you’re telling me this hot dog eating contest all started with 4 men looking to achieve the American dream? That’s admirable, I want to be like them, as a matter of fact I’ll eat that hot dog.

There are tons of ways to align your brand to cultural events, holidays, and icons, Nathan’s just took an unorthodox approach with this story.

Nathan’s could have gone the route of promoting the first contest in 1972 as Nathan’s first EVER contest, consumers love novelty, it would have been an effective way to initially build buzz. Keyword there though, initially.

Nathan’s went the complete opposite route and built an accentuated backstory of the iconic origins of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest. An origin story focused on tradition (aligning with the 4th of July) and one that built Nathan’s hot dog eating contest into something bigger than it actually was at the time.

The reason this is so important to note from a Marketing standpoint is that size is one of the biggest impacts on credibility. Don’t believe me? Here is that idea in full effect: 

Let’s say there are two Marketers on LinkedIn, you know neither one, and have zero mutual connections with either. The first Marketer has 53,993 followers and the second Marketer has 807 followers. If both post a Marketing tip, which one are you taking advice from?

Easy answer. The one with 53,993 followers. 

Are you going to the hot dog eating contest with a rich 50 year history tied to the American dream or the one new brand contest that is hosting its first contest ever? Easy answer. 

Like it or not, size plays a massive role in how humans perceive others’ opinions, brands, and influences our consumption patterns.

And other hot dog brands relish the fact that they didn’t come up with the hot dog eating contest first.

Every 4th of July, Nathan’s still hosts their contest in front of the infamous Nathan’s Famous original restaurant.

40,000 fans gather to watch the spectacle in person, and another 1M+ sit around their TVs to watch the contestants inhale hot dogs like their lives depended on it.

Nathan’s has built a tradition that doubles as hundreds of millions in PR value. (ESPNs ratings for the hot dog eating contest beat that of the MLB games played the same day.)

The impact Nathan’s has had is so profound that if you ask anyone to name an extremely American food, most times they’ll tell you a hot dog. A complete 180 from 50 years ago. 

However the outlook for this year’s contest is gloomy for Nathan’s. Joey Chestnut, the greatest hot dog eater OF ALL TIME (he once ate 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes) was offered a 4-year $1.2M contract to participate in the hot dog eating contest but instead signed a brand partnership with Nathan’s competitor, Impossible Foods, banning him from the 2024 contest.

Joey has become so ingrained with the Nathan’s brand and the 4th of July that if I were Nathan’s I would do anything I can to rekindle the flame with Joey, otherwise they’re at risk of losing tons of momentum.

To further salt that wound, Joey Chestnut agreed to do a different contest LIVE on Netflix September 2nd, with a long-time rival with whom he has unfinished beef with, ha get it? LOL.

Nathan’s has the first mover advantage in the space, but the threat of new innovative formats is looming large for the brand and has me SUPER curious to see the numbers behind this year’s 4th of July hot dog eating contest…

Daniel Murray
Daniel Murray
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