I noticed an unfamiliar version of the Wheaties cereal box in the photo on the right (from EmeraldToys’ Flickr Photosream).
A “before-and-after” picture of a redesigned Wheaties box from a 1955 issue of General Mills’ in-house magazine, The Modern Millwheel. It was for a cover story with the caption: “New look for Wheaties and Kix.”
I was intrigued by the black and white photos of boxes with what appeared to be smiling, multicolor, cartoon-style profiles of kids.
I found the color images of these boxes (above) on the Cereal Box Price Guide Wheaties page which shows that these boxes were only on the shelves for about two years (1956-1957).
Why such a short time? If you look at the chronology of Wheaties packaging on the Cereal Box Price Guide, you’ll notice that this period was a conspicuous digression from the brand’s usual sports-themed packaging design. The story about how this came to pass is not unlike some of the contentious branding brouhahas that we’ve seen more recently. (Tropicana, for example.)
One version of the story goes like this:
In the ’50s… consumer research led the company to move away from its sports positioning and focus the brand on kids—certainly children were prime consumers of cereal. The brand partnered with the Lone Ranger and the Mickey Mouse Club, natural alliances for a brand with this new target. However, this strategic decision was a blunder for the brand (don’t let testing override judgment!), with sales at one point dropping 10% in a year. In 1958, Wheaties re-trued its compass and returned to the positioning that had built the brand.
But in Louis Cheskin’s 1967 Secrets of Marketing Success, he places the blame squarely on the client (General Mills) whose management seemed determine to “modernize” Wheaties’ package design…
When general mills executives saw how great a role the package can play in a marketing program, they asked me to begin work on the breakfast-food line. The ad agency proposed a program based on “Wheaties have gone modern.” They produced a number of package designs to symbolize modernity. I was asked to conduct research to find out whether the “modern” theme would be effective. We tested the new packages with 1,000 mothers and 200 children. The test results showed clearly that the “modern” concept would not sell Wheaties. Both to the mothers and to the children Wheaties meant “Breakfast of Champions.” The report of December 29, 1954, closed with: “These tests show clearly that the old theme should not be given up. It is advisable to modernize the old concept, but not to go modern. I recommend a cleaner figure, brighter and lighter color background, and better readability by redesigning the lettering of the name Wheaties.” On a Saturday when my wife returned from a shopping tour, she said to me, when she saw me standing on the porch sipping a glass of iced tea, “Better sit down, I have something to tell that will shock you.” She told me that she had seen in the supermarket the “modernistic” packages of Wheaties that had failed in our tests. This really did shock me. I rushed to the supermarket with my wife to see them. There they were in all their splendor. They were a bright announcement of a marketing disaster, I told my wife.
Monday morning I called General Mills. I was told … that when top management saw my report, [the marketing research director] was told to employ two other marketing research organizations to work on this problem. Both of the other researchers concluded from their “research” that “Modern Wheaties” would be a great success. The management men had their opinions confirmed. They wanted research that would prove them right and they found it. “Cheskin is not always right,” said one executive… In a few months the packages had to be withdrawn from the market. Wheaties sustained great injury. (In 1964, ten years later, it was reported in the press that a General Mills executive stated in a speech before a marketing group that motivation research failed to provide the right information for marketing Wheaties. I am reporting this to set the record straight.)
It would be interesting to know which ad agency proposed and designed these packages, but if they caused Wheaties sale to drop 10%, I supposed it’s understandable that the agency would not want to claim credit in the press.
Packages with this “modern” design were also featured in a television commercial with a free record attached to the front panel.
(Two “modern” Wheaties magazine covers, after the fold…)
Cover of the 1955 July issue of The Modern Millwheel from from EmeraldToys’ Flickr Photosream
Above is an photo illustration from Confidential Magazine. The photo editor apparently sought to use Wheaties’ sports connotations to make light of Sinatra’s sexual exploits—but the obviously composited photo must have been made in 1956 or 1957 when the Wheaties boxes at the supermarket skewed more towards Disney than to sports.
While not all Confidential stories were strictly true, they were always rooted in fact. Frank Sinatra may not have eaten Wheaties to maintain his stature as “Tarzan of the Boudoir,” as Confidential alleged in 1956, but he did sleep with a call girl who related her experience, breakfast and all, to one of the magazine’s reporters. The Wheaties were just for laughs — and provided the most opaque of covers for the real scandal, which was the presence of a young woman, not his wife, at breakfast time.
from Anne Helen Petersen’s “Tells the Facts and Names the Names” on Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style
I almost forgot: I also have this photo of a “modern” Wheaties box from eBay…