(Note: On Feb. 19, 1906, Will Keith Kellogg founded the
Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. The Michigan entrepreneur’s production
and marketing of breakfast cereals would eventually become the multibillion
dollar company known as Kellogg’s. The Mackinac Center marks the 100th
anniversary of this Michigan success story with the following edited version of
an essay written by Burton W. Folsom Jr., the Center's senior fellow in economic education. The commentary was first published in September 1997.)
Nearly 100 years ago, in the summer of 1907, New
Yorkers were astonished and their breakfast habits forever altered by an
advertising campaign cooked up in Battle Creek, Michigan. The campaign’s catchy
slogan was "Wednesday is ‘Wink Day’ in New York." Daring and even risqué for its
day, the campaign promised each homemaker in the city a free box of corn flakes
if only she would go to a grocery store, look the grocer in the eye, and then
wink at him — but only on Wednesdays.
The man behind this effort had a name that would
soon become a household word all across America. He was Will Kellogg, and
skeptics advised him that his newfangled food idea would never catch on unless
he could conquer the big New York market. His clever campaign worked, and within
about a year, he was shipping thirty train car loads of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to
the Big Apple every month. Ready-to-eat cereals in a box would go on to become a
staple of the American diet.
Most people today don't know the fascinating
details of Will Kellogg’s rise to fame and fortune. The making of the first
flaked cereal is a lesson that teaches us never to underestimate the
entrepreneurial spark that may lie dormant in even the most surprising people.
Will Kellogg seemed most unlikely to become one of
the wealthiest Americans of the century. He had dropped out of school at the age
of thirteen. One of his teachers called him "dim-witted." While still in his
teens, he failed at selling brooms and wouldn't attempt a business venture again
for 30 years. In the interim, the shy and quiet Will worked at the Battle Creek
sanitarium of his older brother John Harvey ("J. H."), performing odd jobs, a
few basic management functions, and some personal chores for J. H., and never
earning more than $3 a day. His most exciting tasks included chasing down
Sometimes Will assisted in food preparation. He
helped develop a moist and tasty breakfast treat made from wheat dough pressed
into large sheets and cut into square servings. One fateful night, he
accidentally left the dough uncovered and found that by morning, it had dried
out. When he ran a rolling pin over it, it "flaked up." Instead of throwing the
flakes away, he decided to put them in bowls and serve them. The patients loved
the crunchy stuff and demanded more!
Suddenly, a light went on in Will's head. In
addition to corn, he experimented with oats and barley and found that flaked
cereal made from them were popular too. He started a mail order business to
supply patients with cereal after they went home. In 1896, the first full year
of sales outside the sanitarium, he sold 113,400 pounds and imitators were
already nipping at his heels.
Will then ran into a stone wall. J. H. was opposed
to getting into the mass marketing of cereal. And when Will added sugar to the
flakes, his health faddist brother hit the roof. In 1906 at the age of 46, the
man who was known as "J. H.’s flunky" finally became his own boss and went into
business for himself.
The New York ad campaign of 1907 was not Will’s
only flash of marketing genius. He pioneered in the use of coupons. He promoted
innovations, from Rice Krispies to All Bran. He was the first to use electric
billboards in New York City. And he was tenacious in the face of disaster: When
a fire destroyed his entire factory at an early stage of his business and Battle
Creek bankers were reluctant to lend him money to replace it, he raised the
capital in Chicago and opened up a bigger and better factory. He shepherded his
company through the Great Depression with this instruction to his staff: "Double
our advertising!" He pushed his Michigan products into dozens of countries.
In his seventies, a millionaire many times over and
one of America's richest citizens, Will Kellogg became one of Michigan's most
celebrated philanthropists. He generously supported disease research, education,
and medical help for children, and even bought an 832-acre farm for Michigan
State University to experiment with crop yields. He plunked down about $50
million to start the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, now the largest philanthropic
organization based in the state.
In his last years, blind and weak in body but
strong in spirit, Will liked nothing better than to be driven to the Kellogg
plant so he could sit and listen to the noises from the factory — his factory.
In 1951, he died at 91. His biographer, Horace B. Powell, aptly described him as
"a man who overrode his own troubles to ease the lives of untold thousands in
three continents of the world."
Because of people like Will Kellogg, Michiganians
should never underestimate how much good can be accomplished by a single person,
any person, with an idea and the freedom to try it out.
Dr. Burton W. Folsom Jr. is a
senior fellow in economic education for theMackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute
headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is
hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.