- What all cereals have got in common is they started as grain - a cheap and characterless commodity. The grain is processed before advertising loads it with meaning. The result is sold for a big profit. Understand this process and you understand the modern food business.
Ninety four per cent of us have a box of cereal in our kitchen cupboards. But a century ago nobody did. How did this emblematic industry colonise our kitchen cupboards so comprehensively?
The answers lie in a sleepy American town, surrounded by a surplus of corn, Battle Creek in Michigan.
One of the major players in the corn gold rush was the now world-famous Kellogg company. What set Kellogg apart from other companies was the visionary commitment of one of its founding brothers W.K. Kellogg to advertising. He gambled a third of his start up capital on one advertisement in the Ladies Home Journal, one of the most widely read magazines of his day.
This single act helped usher in the modern world of advertising we all now inhabit.
By the mid 50s, the cereal industry, led by Kellogg’s, had grown from nothing to an estimated half a billion dollars in value. Americans loved it. The emotional connection had been established. Previously characterless grain was now charged with meaning.
Across the Atlantic in 1954 Britain finally abandoned food rationing. So when ITV launched a year later, it was the perfect opportunity for the Americans to swoop.
The route to success was clear. Heavy spending on advertising means powerful imagery, brand loyalty - and boxes flying off the shelf. It remains so today. More money is spent on advertising cereal than on any other food. Kellogg’s spends more than all its UK rivals put together.
By the 1960s, Britain was changing. It was a time of optimism and the years of austerity and tradition were being cast off. This was the perfect environment for a food that sold itself as modern and aspirational, a ‘now’ food for ‘now’ people.
The cereal story is one of constant reinvention, and restless searching for new ways to add value to grain. The latest manifestation left the cereal bowl altogether, spawning a brand new multi-million pound sector. It was the most radical step of all in the evolution of cereals. It was the cereal bar.
Huge empires in the breakfast cereals business have been built on the simple idea of endlessly adapting a cheap commodity and adding value to it. It’s an idea that has been replicated across the entire food industry, water is bottled and yogurt becomes a super food. Each transition promises us convenience, health, dreams - and for the food business, Money.
In Britain, we eat more cereals than anywhere outside America. The industry has come a long way from Battle Creek to its position as undisputed champion of the breakfast table. From the corn flake to the bar, cereal has become the blank slate for our aspirations and neuroses, and in the process, has made billions.
Sunday, 28 November 2010
Foods that Make Billions: Cereal
A heads-up for this weeks episode of 'Food that Makes Billions' on Tuesday, 21:00 on BBC Two (England, Northern Ireland, Wales only):