Innovative or Not? – Kellogg’s Cornflakes

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Kellogg’s Cornflakes comes under our microscope:

Innovative – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes have been around for literally over a century, and may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of an innovative product. However, the brand produced both manufacturing techniques and advertising that revolutionized the industry.

Like many inventions, the story of Corn Flakes began with an accident. The Kellogg brothers, working at a sanitarium, left cooked wheat to cool for too long. Though the wheat went stale, they attempted to salvage it by pressing it through rollers to make dough. Instead, the wheat formed flakes, which were then toasted. Realizing the novelty of this method, the brothers patented it. Corn was later substituted for wheat.

Corn Flakes required no new technology to produce nor were they the first breakfast cereal available. In spite of this, they were able to disrupt the market with the new “format” of the ready-to-eat flake at a time when most cereals were hard biscuits that required preparation. Their unique product spawned countless imitators, and more importantly drove further innovation at both Kellogg’s and their competitors.

But the cereal itself was not the only innovative thing about Corn Flakes. Shortly after the cereal hit mass market, Kellogg’s started offering a premium “prize” to anyone who purchased two boxes. The prize was given in the store, but eventually became a mail-in offer. This not only helped spur growth at Kellogg’s, but also created a new way of incentivizing purchases that became one of the mainstays of the breakfast cereal business.

Not – Though highly successful, Will Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were not innovative.  He simply attached them to the bandwagon of breakfast cereals that started with Granula in 1863.  The first cereals were innovative, proving so popular that they’re now a staple in many countries, but Corn Flakes didn’t arrive until 1906, 43 years later.

In the intervening years, other innovations paved the way.  Following Granula, a ‘ready-to-eat’ breakfast cereal was introduced by Quaker oats in 1877, improving on the need to soak Granula overnight. Then, a major disruptive innovation arrived in 1879 when George Hoyt designed an attractive box for his Wheatena cereal, avoiding the less sanitary practice of selling breakfast cereal from barrels.  This was the birth of modern breakfast cereals.

Around the same time, Kellogg’s brother, John, developed a biscuit of ground cereals.  He was working on this product when he accidentally let soaked wheat go stale and found, to his surprise, that it could be rolled into wheat flakes.  John called it Granose, serving it and a corn version to patients at his sanatorium, but it would be another 20 years before Will would mass market Corn Flakes in an already burgeoning industry of breakfast cereal.

There is no doubt that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was and is a strong, successful product, but this resulted from good marketing that stood on the existing innovations of ready-to-eat, convenient, sanitary, processed breakfast cereals.  Corn flakes and Android may be great products, but Granula, Quaker Oats, Wheatena, and iOS were innovative.

Verdict – Not Innovative!  The history of cereal is in itself a story of great inventions and Kellogg’s Cornflakes stands proudly amongst the best in this field.  Inventions are easy to spot but when trying to identify a great innovation within the history of a great business things can get a bit tricky.  How much success is attributed to the invention and how much to the strong business model?  For me the key here is in the time that Will took to mass market the invention.  There is not doubt that the brothers had stumbled upon a great invention but by the time the product was marketed to the public the cereal category was rife with competitors and substitutes.   What’s more, so much time had elapsed since the invention that no significant legal protection was left for the nascent business.  If Will had moved to produce his Cornflakes immediately upon discovery would I reverse my decision?  Probably, but all we really know for certain is that by the time the Corn presses started rolling the company was relying on its marketing message to out compete its rivals as the value in the invention, and thus its status as an innovation, had been diluted.

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