Whether or not breakfast really is the most important meal of the day remains up for debate, but in recent years it’s emerged as a gigantic growth opportunity for food manufacturers and restaurants alike — just ask McDonald’s. The era of cold cereal is decidedly over, though, and these days people are more apt to turn to $8 green juice or a drive-thru burrito in the morning. (Turns out millennials really are lazy: In a recent consumer survey, almost 40 percent of respondents said they thought cereal was too much work in the morning.)
But even as breakfast cereal has fallen decidedly out of vogue and its sales have slumped accordingly, one brand name has remained as much a symbol of Americana as the Golden Arches or Mickey Mouse. Nearly a century after its launch, the bright-orange Wheaties box remains a visual shorthand for athletic achievement, frequently going hand-in-hand with another emblem of victory: the Olympic gold medal.
"There’s no question about it, when you walk down the cereal aisle, that Wheaties box stands out," says Dr. John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. John’s University. "People can’t make complex decisions for every product they buy in a store. So what they need is cues or signals that say, ‘This is it, this is the one to buy.’ Color can be that signal — the orange box. And so can a slogan like ‘Breakfast of Champions.’" A gold medalist on the the box doesn’t hurt, either, as far as consumers are concerned — but how did appearing on the front of a Wheaties box become one of the most coveted endorsements for Olympians?
From a marketing standpoint, Wheaties was revolutionary almost from the very start. Originally launched as Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes by General Mills in 1921, the cereal adopted its decidedly more catchy moniker a couple years later (fun fact: It was almost given the rather unfortunate name Nutties), and pioneered the very first commercial jingle with a "Have you tried Wheaties?" radio ad in 1926.
But it wasn’t until the company forged a partnership with professional baseball in the 1930s that Wheaties really caught on. Armed with that pithy slogan and a slew of player endorsements, including Lou Gehrig’s, the company was no longer just selling crunchy wheat flakes: It was selling all-American athletic aspirations.
"Wheaties carved out a niche a long time ago in what I would call ‘food as fuel,’" says Kate Greenberg, sports marketing consultant for Hill+Knowlton Strategies. "Their slogan and the athletes featured on the boxes really reinforce this idea that their product can propel you toward achievement."
Athletes made the leap from back-of-the-box stories and stats to being featured on the front of the cereal box in 1956. After a brief (and failed) attempt at marketing itself as a kids’ cereal, Wheaties selected Olympic pole vaulting champion Bob Richards, the first in his sport to win two gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Games and the 1956 Melbourne Games, to become its first official spokesman. Richards wore a suit and tie for his first box cover, the picture of a successful champion; his successor, Caitlyn Jenner — who prior to her public transition won the men's 1976 Olympic decathlon — received a trio of boxes showcasing her skills at pole vaulting, running, and throwing the javelin. But more than just faces on the box, Wheaties’ early stars were thrust into the position of national role models, traveling cross-country to promote fitness — and help Wheaties further its brand.
"When you’re on a Wheaties box, it’s a signal to the world that you have ascended to the top of your sport."
"We look for athletes who represent their respective sports," says current General Mills marketing manager Dave Oehler, explaining the brand’s selection process. "They’re selected based on their athletic achievements and how they personify being a champion, both on and off the field of competition." The company works 18 months to two years ahead of time in an attempt to identify which athletes are destined for the kind of greatness that could result in a spike in Wheaties sales. Among those considered worthy of the "champion" label have been nearly two dozen more Olympians, including breakout stars like gymnast Mary Lou Retton, swimmer Michael Phelps, track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. A handful of Olympic teams — like the wildly successful 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics squad — have also been featured on the box.
For the athletes, appearing on a Wheaties box provides a major boost for their personal brands. "For U.S. athletes who are seeking a global appeal, it's not enough just to be one of the best," Greenberg says. "You have to be the best to translate in a foreign market. You have to be Tiger Woods. You have to be Kobe Bryant. When you're on a Wheaties box, even if that particular endorsement doesn't pay a lot, it's a signal to the world that you have ascended to the top of your sport, that you are a true champion."
One person who was able to translate that achievement outside the world of sports was Jenner. After crushing the decathlon world record, Jenner was an instant national hero, and Wheaties named her its second-ever spokesperson. "That opportunity opened many doors for me professionally as I ventured into the entertainment business from the world of sports," Jenner told Eater via email. Earning her rightful place on the cereal box helped catapult Jenner from sports-world fame to American superstar, making the cover of Playgirl and even temporarily replacing Erik Estrada on the iconic 1980s cop show CHiPs.
For big-name champions like a Jenner or a Phelps, Wheaties is often just one bullet point on a lengthy list of endorsements, and appearing on the front of the Wheaties box is more about the glory than the paycheck. Thanks to the decades of prestige attached to it, the cereal brand reportedly gets away with paying considerably less than other, more traditional endorsement deals — think thousands, not millions, of dollars. In 1999, the Wall Street Journal wrote that big names like Tiger Woods and Ken Griffey, Jr. were "treating the Breakfast of Champions more like a cold bowl of porridge," forcing the company to up their offers or to feature additional sponsors in the photos that ended up on the box. In some deals between General Mills and less high-profile stars — such as the 1998 U.S. women's hockey team — no money changes hands at all.
"That opportunity opened many doors for me as I ventured into the entertainment business from the world of sports."
But when it comes to luring Olympians, Wheaties has a bit of an advantage. Vying for a gold medal may be the ultimate quest, but unlike, say, NBA and NFL players, Olympic athletes are not paid a dime by the International Olympic Committee. Instead, they rely on everything from day jobs to corporate sponsorships to stipends from sporting organizations to fund their training and daily cost of living. For many, a breakout performance at the Olympics provides the only real opportunity to grab the attention of potential endorsers: In the four years in between the Games, sports like swimming, gymnastics, alpine skiing, and track and field go largely ignored by the general public.
So if athletes get recognition and prestige — if not a whole lot of cash — what does Wheaties get out of the deal? "Brands believe there is an association between the success of an athlete and the success of their product," says Stanton. "That is, successful people eat their products. So it’s trying to transfer the positive equity of a sports figure to the equity of the brand." According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Advertising Research, sales of athlete-endorsed products rise four percent on average following the announcement of such deals. Product sales (and the company’s stock price) also see an additional jump when the athlete scores a major achievement — say, an Olympic medal.
But General Mills isn’t the only company on a constant search for the next big thing, as other brands have increasingly treaded onto Wheaties’ turf. Following the 2016 U.S. women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal victory in Rio, rival brand Kellogg’s announced it would put the "Final Five" — Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian — on a Special K box.
"What we are witnessing here is a veritable ‘battle of the box,’" says Greenberg. "Because of its status as an official Olympic sponsor and preexisting relationship with Simone Biles, Kellogg’s was able to move quickly to reveal its claim to some of the biggest stars of the Games. Depending on the nature of the contracts, there may be category exclusivity for Kellogg’s — meaning that Wheaties would not have access to these same athletes at all, or at least have a waiting period before signing contracts of their own for the iconic orange box."
Cold cereal may no longer be the actual breakfast of champions, and plenty of other brands are determined to duke it out with General Mills to snag the biggest Olympic talent. But thanks to decades of carefully aligned marketing and a virtual hall of fame of gold medal winners who have come before them, Wheaties will seemingly have no trouble finding bright young Olympic stars — and their faces will gaze outward from the cereal aisle of every grocery store in America for years to come.
Whitney Filloon is Eater's assistant news editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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