Whether on TikTok, Goldfish or ice cream, Old Bay is in on the joke

Published on: September 27, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: September 29, 2022 6:29 PM EDT

Old Bay seasoning has its own TikTok account, because of course it does. A recurring star is this mascot.

Old Bay Seasoning has its own TikTok account — because of course it does.

Among the highly goofy videos, a recurring star is the Old Bay mascot, a McCormick & Company staffer dressed in bright red pants and an Old Bay tin for a body. In another, a hand dumps an entire canister of Old Bay into a plastic lunch box. The caption: “Meal prepping.” There are inside jokes only the TikTok literate can understand, like riffs on the Corn boy video.

“The brand doesn’t take itself too seriously,” said McCormick’s Chief Marketing Officer, Jill Pratt.

Old Bay is in on the joke. Created in the 1940s by a German Jewish immigrant and found in kitchens and crab houses across Maryland, the brand has only grown stronger with time, developing an intense cult following with Baltimore as its locus.

But lately, Old Bay mania seems to be at an all-time high. Though the TikTok was just launched on April 20, it has almost 50,000 followers. In addition to social media, McCormick & Company has fed its fans with products like Old Bay Goldfish crackers, hot sauce and vodka. More recently, the company released a sweet-and-salty Old Bay Caramel spice blend, a nod to the ice cream flavor developed by Baltimore ice cream shop The Charmery. It sold out in 48 hours.

Many new items are inspired by requests from fans; petitions to introduce Old Bay-flavored Goldfish crackers, for example, circulated online. But Pratt says the company passes on many product ideas. “We don’t want to overexpose the brand in ways that don’t make sense,” she said. Although Old Bay may taste good on almost everything, “It’s not like we slap it on everything we get.”

Old Bay soft foam lacrosse slides? Absolutely.

“We sold a ton of Old Bay masks during the pandemic,” Pratt said, recalling the smiles she got while wearing one at the Denver International Airport.

Similar to pumpkin spice, a seasoning that has inspired an endless array of products, Old Bay is full of nostalgic appeal and positive associations, said Jason Fischer, who studies human perception as an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. People love pumpkin spice not just because of its dynamic scent or taste, but because it reminds them of cozy fall memories. The same is true of Old Bay, which many associate with relaxed summer cookouts and good times with family.

Those memories get reinforced by what Fischer calls Old Bay’s “intriguing and enticing flavor.”

Fischer never tried Old Bay before he moved to Maryland. At first, the favorite local seasoning in the yellow can reminded him a bit of the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt his mom used to cook with back home in Minnesota. Over time, the research scientist realized that Old Bay is “its own complex and mysterious beast,” noting that it’s both earthy and sweet. “It has a depth like a good blended Scotch,” he said, describing its “unique olfactory fingerprint.”

Years later, Fischer is a true Marylander. During a Zoom interview, the research scientist held up a 24-ounce container of Old Bay that he had recently used to steam crabs at home. “It’s balanced enough that no one thing dominates. The aroma of the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

A mix of 18 spices, Old Bay Seasoning has historically included salt, bay leaves, mustard, pepper, cardamom, cloves, paprika and ginger. The blend was concocted by an immigrant to Baltimore named Gustav Brunn, who arrived in the New World with a spice grinder.

Local seafood merchants were initially leery of his creation, since most made their own spices already. But Brunn convinced one wholesaler to sample his version — and the man’s business took off, Brunn told an interviewer in 1980, according to a Baltimore Sun story from 2018.

“You see, they liked it, when he sold his crabs, they liked it a whole lot better than the others … so I got one customer after another. And these seafood men here in the city and in the whole area must have it today,” Brunn told the interviewer. On the advice of a friend who worked in advertising, he named the blend after the Old Bay steamship line.

The quirky, multifaceted nature of Old Bay — and its distinctive yellow and blue packaging — lends itself to a seemingly infinite number of other items and even apparel, Fischer said. “It’s sort of like the [Maryland] flag here,” he said, and fans embrace it on apparel and tattoos.

In 2019, Pratt said, the company offered free Old Bay tattoos to anyone in Baltimore who wanted one, building off a trend they had seen from customers who sent in photos of their tattoos. The response was overwhelming, and people lined up around the block to get inked with their favorite seasoning. In all, 75 people got permanently stamped.

Another unique aspect of Old Bay, said Fischer, is that “it cuts across all corners of our culinary culture.” A can is likely to be found in the kitchen of any side-of-the-road seafood restaurant or fine dining establishment in Maryland — though many crab houses season crabs with J.O. brand seasoning, which is processed in Halethorpe.

“Old Bay has that type of brand equity that is just so delightful,” said Pratt, calling it “a secret that people want to share.”

McCormick acquired Old Bay in the 1990s, and Pratt says 70% of national sales actually come from outside the mid-Atlantic region, despite the strong association with Baltimore.

Another surprise? The most popular use for Old Bay is making shrimp.

And Old Bay could soon wind up on more plates across the pond. This summer, McCormick recently began selling Old Bay online to customers in the UK — again, a move Pratt says was largely driven by requests from fans. Months later, it’s already the second-bestselling seasoning on Amazon.

Asked if she envisioned Old Bay going on a classic British dish like fish and chips, Pratt demurred.

More than most people, Pratt knows: you don’t mess with a classic.

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