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Corn Flakes in Context . . . and Milk

October 6, 2009 • Scott McMurray

One of the most effective ways clients put their history to use is to put it in context. Milestones, from centennials to major mergers to game-changing innovations, are important in and of themselves. But they don’t occur in a vacuum. To fully leverage your heritage and make it resonate as broadly as possible, anchor events in the context of the times. Or, as Kellogg’s did when faced with putting Corn Flakes in context, the Times.

On the morning of October 5, 2009, readers of The New York Times were treated to a full-page ad on the back of the “A” section, at the bottom of which was an ad for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes reminiscent of the design used a century earlier, when the parent was still called the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Co. “For more than 100 years Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has been a great way to start the day,” the ad copy reads. Behind a cereal box bearing the original lettering stands “The Sweetheart of the Corn,” an idealized farm girl wearing an apron, with a bonnet hanging from her neck. She appears to have just stepped in from the fields where she gathered the corn stalks she holds in her arms.

Had the Kellogg’s crew stopped there, they would have had a very visually engaging toast to their brand’s enduring history. But they went one step further and put the ad in context by reproducing the front page of the Times from October 5, 1909. The reader can’t help but draw out the key messages that make heritage memorable—look at what’s changed, and look at what has endured (like the company and brand itself).

And what a day it was! The lead, right-hand column reproduced on the page celebrates the previous morning’s 20-mile flight by Wilbur Wright—“to whom the title King of the Air has frequently been applied”—up and down the Hudson River at a speed of 42 miles an hour! He “sailed with the grace of a seagull and strength of an eagle.” As objective as ever, the paper saw fit to note that an afternoon flight was cancelled after Wright’s plane blew an engine cylinder head. The middle column carries the headline “Statue of Purity for Times Square.” Despite the straight-laced writing style of the era, it is not hard to detect a certain tongue-in-cheek tone running through the story. Over in the left-hand, column the paper highlights gifts given to universities and educational institutes from wealthy families, including the Pratts, Sloanes, Vanderbilts, and Dukes.

Though very effective as a visual display ad, if the company were to fully leverage its heritage in a museum-like display or book format, we would recommend going one step further and interpreting the historical context.

The country was rapidly urbanizing 100 years ago—within a decade more than half of the population would live in cities for the first time ever. Corn flakes’ branding played a part in shaping America’s nostalgia for what many saw as a rapidly fading way of life. At the same time, the purity and health messages of Kellogg’s brand were in synch with the progressive wave taking hold in America which, in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt, led to the first nationwide food purity laws.

Other changes under way at the time resonate with today’s readers. The financial crash of 1907 was still a vivid memory in the minds of 1909 readers, and a small item on the 1909 front page noted that the Oklahoma banking commissioner was paying out deposits to customers of a failed bank in defiance of a federal court order. Changes set in motion by that crash fanned a wave of financial regulation leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the ratification of a constitutional amendment enabling the creation of a personal income tax, both in 1913.

The wealthy of 1909 were feeling the heat. They gave to worthy causes in part to show that they could benefit society, even if speculation by some in their rank had nearly brought the country to the brink of disaster. The president of Trinity College noted a gift from Mr. B.N. Duke and declared that he “was the type of man who gave the country no concern as to what to do with its millionaires.” Good call, at least in Duke’s case. Trinity’s successor institution was named Duke University in recognition of the family’s financial support.

Much has changed since Americans first started eating Corn Flakes a century ago. That many of us still eat Corn Flakes is a testament to an enduring brand through changing times . . . and America’s desire for a quick, healthy breakfast. Please pass the milk.


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