There are many memorable breakfast cereal slogans, from “They’re grrreat” to “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids,” but few have reigned as long as the “Breakfast of Champions” tagline for Wheaties cereal. General Mills has held a trademark on that phrase since 1936, and it still appears on every bright orange box of Wheaties.
History of Wheaties
In 1921, a food scientist working for the Minneapolis-based Washburn Crosby Company accidentally spilled some bran onto a hot stove. The resulting flake was crisp, golden and tasty. The Washburn Crosby Company, which later became General Mills, began packaging and selling toasted bran flakes as Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. The company later shortened the name to Wheaties.
From the start, Wheaties had an association with sports. General Mills owned a Minneapolis radio station and had a contract to broadcast games played by the Minneapolis Miners, a minor league baseball team. In exchange for broadcasting the games, Wheaties could advertise on the stadium’s billboards.
In 1927, General Mills asked advertising executive Knox Reeves to come up with a new slogan for the billboards. Legend has it Reeves sketched a picture of a Wheaties box, thought for a moment and then wrote, “Wheaties: The breakfast of champions.” Since then, that slogan has appeared on every box of the cereal and in numerous ad campaigns.
The cereal’s long association with sports led to an endorsement deal with baseball star Lou Gehrig. In 1934, Gehrig appeared on the back of the box. At first, Wheaties featured its star athletes on the back of the box rather than the front.
Over the years, Gehrig’s fellow baseball players lined up to endorse the cereal and get their picture on the back. By 1939, 46 of the 51 players in that year’s All-Star Game had appeared on the back of the Wheaties box.
The 1987 box featuring the Minnesota Twins when they won the World Series sold out in hours from Minneapolis grocery shelves.
First Woman on the Box
Elinor Smith also graced the back of the box. The daring aviator was the first woman to appear on the Wheaties box.
Smith was one of the youngest people in history to get a pilot’s license, which she got at age 16. She set many altitude, endurance and speed records for women’s flights and was famous for her dangerous flying stunts.
In 1958, Wheaties began showing athletes on the front of the box. Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards was the first to appear on the front of the box. Another Olympian, Mary Lou Retton, was the first female on the front in 1984.
At times, Wheaties has used other slogans, including “You better eat your Wheaties” and “Eaties for my Wheaties,” but none has had the staying power of the original. General Mills trademarked “Breakfast of champions” in 1936.
Wheaties’ advertising history is noteworthy for another reason. The brand was the first company in the world to use a singing commercial. These singing radio commercials featured a group named the Wheaties Quartet, which comprised an undertaker, bailiff, printer and business owner. The commercials first appeared during the 1926 Christmas season.
According to the Daily Meal, “In 1929, General Mills wanted to drop the Wheaties brand before its advertising manager revealed that 30,000 of the 53,000 cases sold that year were bought in the Minneapolis area, where the Wheaties Quartet commercial was regularly broadcast. The singing commercials began to air nationwide, and sales soared.”
General Mills has not had to fight many trademark infringement lawsuits over Wheaties. Early in its history, however, it fought a long-running battle against fellow cereal maker Quaker Oats.
In 1939, Quaker Oaks began making and selling a cereal called Oaties. Quaker filed to register the name as a trademark. General Mills responded with a lawsuit that said the name was too similar to Wheaties. Quaker responded that the packaging of Oaties differed totally from the Wheaties packaging and nobody would ever confuse them. It also argued that consumers could clearly tell the difference between oats and wheats.
The US District Court of Northern Illinois, Eastern Division, ruled right down the middle. It said Quaker could use the name “Oaties” but not trademark it. General Mills could not stop Quaker from making the cereal because it could not prove consumers were confused about the two products.
Another interesting outcome is that General Mills changed the name of another product it called CheeriOats. To avoid confusion with Oaties, the company changed the cereal’s name to Cheerios. Today, Oaties have disappeared from supermarket shelves, but Cheerios are everywhere.
In 2017, General Mills lost its attempt to trademark the color yellow for Cheerios cereal.
In its ruling, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board noted, “There is no doubt that a single color applied to a product or its packaging may function as a trademark and be entitled to registration under the Trademark Act, but that’s only if those colors have become ‘inherently distinctive’ in the eyes of consumers.” In making the ruling, the appeals court noted that there are many brands of oat-based cereals that use yellow packaging.
Some companies have been able to argue that a color is intrinsic to their marketing and branding. Those include Tiffany and Co. with their Tiffany Blue, Target with Target Red and Cadbury Chocolate with Cadbury Purple.
Is Wheaties Still the Breakfast Champion?
Wheaties is no longer the top-selling cereal it once was, but it is still among General Mills’ top 20 products. The iconic brand may be filling breakfast bowls for another 100 years.