Jack Armstrong, Michael Jordan, and Alex Rodriguez. Those three men are just some of the hundreds of athletes who have appeared on boxes of Wheaties since 1934.
The concept started when there were only a handful of breakfast items available to purchase, baseball was one of the only sports to watch, and very few companies believed in commercials.
General Mills took advantage of the marketplace by crafting the slogan “The Breakfast of Champions.” The brand associated itself with idolized athletes to sell aspirations.
The marketing plan worked because the brand had a captive audience with baseball games and broadcasts, people trusted the message that they too could perform well, consumers shared their love for the product through word-of-mouth communication, the packaging was easily recognizable, and some folks thought the products were collectibles.
As the cost of advertising increased and the market grew to include hundreds of cereals and the creation of granola bars, Wheaties dropped all sports sponsorships in the early 1950s. The brand realized it made a mistake quickly went back to athletics by 1958.
In a July 2014 article, the New York Times brought up a good point:
HOW do you sell a cereal known for decades as “The breakfast of champions” to younger consumers who may believe “champions” is a quaint word and may perceive breakfast as something from a food truck, washed down with an energy drink?”
The company isn’t afraid to admit the definition of “champion” is evolving:
A champion is no longer solely a megastar athlete; it is also any person who looks inside and challenges their personal best.”
Wheaties is now adjusting its brand by becoming more interactive with younger audiences who help decide what their parents buy at the supermarket.
In the Wheaties Next Challenge, consumers voted for one of five athletes they wanted to appear on the iconic orange box in January 2015. These pros weren’t from the world of baseball or football, though. General Mills is going after the niche markets of emerging sports, like motocross and mixed martial arts.
There is, of course, a catch! Voters had to exercise and record their results through a third-party website and mobile app, which also posted their performances to social media. As David Oehler, the marketing manager for Wheaties, said:
We’re excited to kick off the NEXT Challenge. It’s a new twist on the traditional contest because these athletes and their fans have got to have skin in the game. You can’t just sit idly by and click the mouse to submit a vote each day; you have to get out and you have to work for it.”
Although advertisers are targeting more specific audiences with customized messages that encourage instant feedback, the goal is still the same. Word-of-mouth communication is more powerful than ever because of the influence of social media. Companies want their product to be at the forefront of consumers’ minds. When someone is thinking about what they’re going to eat for breakfast, Wheaties should automatically come to mind as they open the pantry.
By the way, Michael Jordan has appeared on Wheaties boxes a record 18 times — the most of any athlete.