Food & Bev

Package Deal: Glass Heinz ketchup bottles aren’t sold in supermarkets much anymore, but they’re still central to the brand’s identity

They’re making a triumphant return to the Steelers’ stadium and starring in a new ad campaign.
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Michael Walters - Pa Images/Getty Images

· 4 min read

A package protects, promotes, and sets a product apart. This series looks at how iconic packages took shape.

Heinz bottle

You wouldn’t think that something as commonplace as a bottle for a condiment would be all over the news in a major city, but that’s exactly what happened last week.

On April 18, a crane hoisted a 35-foot Heinz ketchup bottle onto the exterior of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home field, Acrisure Stadium, which for more than two decades had been Heinz Field before fintech firm Acrisure purchased the naming rights last year.

It was a triumphant return for the bottle, which had been one of two attached to the scoreboard when it was still Heinz Field before they were removed last year. And it reflected Pittsburghers’ affection for Heinz ketchup, which was launched there in 1876.

“The ketchup’s back!” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reader, “Joe h,” wrote in a comment to an article. “Our iconic bottle looks great all shined up!”

The giant bottle Steelers’ fans were pining for is in the shape of the glass version, which hasn’t been widely available in supermarkets since Heinz first introduced a plastic package in 1983. But the company, which merged with Kraft to become Kraft Heinz in 2015 and no longer produces ketchup in Pittsburgh, still sells ketchup in glass bottles through foodservice distributors to restaurants.

And the history of that glass bottle is as rich as the contents that can be so hard to coax out of it.

Heinz sight’s 20/20: Henry J. Heinz founded his namesake company in 1869 and first produced horseradish. Still in the early days of food processing, packaged ketchups then were notoriously unappetizing, described as “filthy, decomposed, and putrid” by cookbook author Pierre Blot in 1866, according to an account in Fast Company.

When Heinz, whom Fast Company described as being “obsessed with making his products as pure as possible,” introduced ketchup in 1876, he put it in clear glass bottles, unlike competitors who favored opaque glass.

“He used clear glass bottles instead of the brown glass or green glass,” Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, told The Morning Call. “He wanted people to see his product. He wanted them to see the purity of it.”

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So unique was its bottle design that in 1890 Heinz secured a patent for it.

Why it works: What makes the bottle stand out, according to Larkin Werner, creative director at Wall-to-Wall Studios, a brand and digital design agency in Pittsburgh, is the shape.

“It makes it just a little bit more distinctive–it catches the light in a slightly different way,” Werner told Retail Brew.

“Only certain brands own their bottle shape,” Greta Dirsel, executive creative director at branding and design agency Landor & Fitch, told us, citing Coca-Cola as another example.

When it introduced foil ketchup packets in 1968, Heinz featured an image of its primary packaging, the ketchup bottle, an oddly postmodern gesture of self-referentiality.

“They use it as an icon,” Dirsel said of using an image of the bottles on the packets. “It’s a heritage play. It’s an authenticity play.”

As for the bottle itself, as notable as how it looks is how it feels.

“The shape is dictated by the bottle’s function, which gives it a pleasingly no-nonsense air,” the New York Times noted in 2009. “The weight is just right—heavy enough to feel substantial, but not too much so.”

Fill-up glass: It’s not just in Pittsburgh where the original Heinz glass bottle is getting a star turn these days.

New ads on billboards in New York and Chicago show what is meant to look like secretly snapped photos of restaurant workers pouring cheap, off-brand ketchup into glass Heinz bottles.

“Even when it isn’t Heinz, it has to be Heinz,” declares the copy in the ads in the campaign, called “Ketchup Fraud,” by Canadian creative agency Rethink.

These being ads for Heinz, you might expect their bottles to be front and center and unobscured, like a paid placement product on a TV show. In the ads, however, they’re just the opposite, the bottles’ distinctive labels partly turned away, the Heinz logo covered by hands.

But you barely need to see a Heinz bottle to know that you’re looking at a Heinz bottle.

“It’s such a distinctive bottle even in silhouette form,” said Werner. “There aren’t too many products’ packaging that can actually do that.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.