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Corn Flake Innovation and the Battling Brothers Behind the Kellogg’s Brand

The business world is built on stories of struggle, triumph, perseverance and personal conflict – particularly when it comes to family members vying for positions of power in the boardroom, prestige within a brand dynasty and, of course, money. You don’t need to look far to discover courtroom dramas involving siblings, parents, spouses, aunts and uncles. Check out the Related Links accompanying this article to read more about famous corporate family slugfests involving the Kochs of Kansas, tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s estate, and health care giant Johnson & Johnson — to name just a few.

Over a century ago, Kellogg’s created the first breakfast cereal, the corn flake, in Battle Creek, Mich. Today, the name Kellogg’s evokes more than corn flakes but also Pringles potato chips, Pop tarts, Eggo and other snack items. But the brand’s status as an American icon glosses over the family drama between brothers John and Will Kellogg, whose ideas gave birth to the business.

The book, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, chronicles this conflict. It is written by Dr. Howard Markel, a professor and the director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. He recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about the bitterness that tinged the brothers’ relationship. Visit Knowledge@Wharton to read the full interview and listen to the podcast.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: Normally, I would wonder why a professor of medicine would be interested in this story. But John Kellogg was actually a very well-known physician.

Howard Markel: Yes, he was one of the most famous physicians of his time. He was a best-selling author. He edited a magazine that was read by millions around the world. And he ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was a world-famous medical spa, grand hotel and up-to-date medical center that thousands of people flocked to every year.

Knowledge@Wharton: His success in medicine was important when he and his brother decided to get into food production.

Markel: One of the doctor’s great interests was in the digestive tract. He saw a great many patients with upset stomachs, ulcers — what was then called dyspepsia and what Walt Whitman called “the great American stomach ache.” And little wonder, if you look at what Americans ate in the late 19th century — a lot of animal fat, heavy, greasy fried foods, creamed vegetables, pickles, spicy condiments and so on. No wonder everyone had a stomach ache. These very worried people came to the doctor for digestive advice. Cereal was really a by-product of his whole philosophy of health.

The doctor prescribed what we would call today wellness. He called it biologic living. Some of it was based on his religion, Seventh-day Adventism. The idea was to eat a whole-grain and vegetable diet, exercise and the like. But he developed cereal — first wheat flakes, then corn flakes — as an easily digestible meal.

Knowledge@Wharton: His brother Will sees this as a potential marketing idea?

Markel: Absolutely. The doctor was the showboat, the brilliant doctor that people wanted to see. But Will ran that sanitarium. He was the chief of staff without title for nearly 25 years. He was a great businessman. He was also right there experimenting with the doctor because it took thousands of tries to get the right formula for corn flakes. He saw right away that there are a lot more of healthy people who just want to have a healthy, nutritious breakfast than sick people who want an easily digestible one. It was his brilliant, eureka-like moment that led to him leaving the doctor’s employ and creating what was called the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. We know it today as Kellogg’s.

Knowledge@Wharton: The relationship between the brothers is part of the story, and the fact that they did not see eye to eye.

Markel: The doctor was eight years older than Will, and he humiliated and browbeat his brother for their entire lives. When they were kids, it was physical [attacks as well as] taunting and such, but even when they worked together, the doctor treated him like a lackey. He paid him very poorly. He humiliated him in front of the guests. The doctor was so busy, he would ride his bike across the campus. Will would run, and huff and puff while he took notes, so the doctor wouldn’t miss a stitch on his great ideas. They didn’t have a great relationship.

When Will left the company and started being successful, the doctor started making his own cereal, and that took away from Will’s brand. He actually sued the doctor, and the doctor countersued. The lawsuit went all the way to the state supreme court over the issue of who had the right to use the name Kellogg on a box of cereal. The doctor thought, “I’m the world-famous doctor. I’m the digestive guru. It’s me.” And Will said, “Hey, wait a minute. I spent millions of dollars advertising Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. They think of me.” And guess what?  Will won.

Knowledge@Wharton: How successful was Will?

Markel: He was successful beyond his wildest dreams. He said to some of his early investors, “I sort of feel it in my bones.” This was his great creation, corn flakes. Within a few years, they were just shipping out carload after carload of cornflakes on the trains to the hinterlands.

In 1906, you have to imagine how difficult it was for a mother to make breakfast, frying up bacon and making eggs. You had wood-burning stoves, so you had to stoke the fire. After 1906, you could just pour breakfast out of a box. Even Dad could make breakfast. It was just utterly incredible. It was one of the great modern inventions of the early 20th century.

Knowledge@Wharton: It wasn’t only the effort that went into making a traditional breakfast, but what was being consumed went against the healthy philosophy that John had.

Markel: You were eating a lot of cured, salted meats or potatoes fried in the congealed fat from last night’s meal. It wasn’t what we would call a healthy breakfast by any stretch, and this was — it was sold that way. It was sold directly to mothers and their children. Will came up with the first [idea of putting a] toy in the box. It was a coloring book. That came out in 1909. He found that the coloring book took up a lot of space in the box, and it was a lot cheaper than adding the extra corn flakes. It was just a brilliant idea all around.

Knowledge@Wharton: When did they start to develop the other types of cereals that ultimately made this company famous?

Markel: Right away, Will developed not only Corn Flakes, but a few years later Rice Krispies. He learned how to pop rice the way we now know it as “snap, crackle and pop.” He actually stole the recipe for shredded wheat and came up with Kellogg’s Shredded Wheat. That was a different lawsuit, by the way. Of course, the doctor came up with all these [recipes for] bran cereals that Will stole. It was very easy to steal a cereal recipe, even if it was patented. All you had to do is change one tiny little step. So Will sold All-Bran and Bran Crumbles and things like that. The other cereals that we know Kellogg’s for — Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops and Sugar Smacks — those all came to be after Will retired and after he died.

Knowledge@Wharton: Battle Creek was important to the cereal industry for quite some time. You note that there were dozens of cereal companies there at one period of time?

Markel: At one point in the early 1900s, there were over 100 different companies. A lot of them were fly-by-night companies or were successful only for a few years. And unless you’re a historian like me, you would never know the names of these cereals. One my favorites was called Maple Flakes. Even in the early 1900s, they had maple syrup-impregnated flakes. There was C.W. Post. Charlie Post was a patient at the doctor’s Battle Creek Sanitarium. He couldn’t pay his room and board, so he worked it off by working in the kitchen and stole some of their most famous recipes.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did the rest of the Kellogg family react to this battle between John and Will?

Markel: It was very toxic. The other family members, particularly their sisters and brothers, didn’t know which way to turn. These were both very powerful men, and they did not want to curry their disfavor in any way.

John Harvey [Kellogg] and his wife, Ella, had 42 adopted children. They never had their own children. In fact, many people believe they never even consummated their marriage. Will had three children — two boys and a girl. While he was quiet about his complaints about his brother, they knew very well about this battle, and it did not have a good effect.

Will, of course, had an inferiority complex the size of Rhode Island. Despite his great success, he was the Bill Gates of processed food. I use that name not just because of his success as an industrialist, but also because of his success as a philanthropist. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is about a $9 billion foundation and does remarkable work to this day. But he had a great inferiority complex and was never terribly happy. He was very domineering. When he died, his grandson wrote, “Nobody really shed a tear.” To me, this was one of the saddest stories ever to come out of Battle Creek.

Knowledge@Wharton: It wasn’t a surprise that John would want to get into the business after Will had early success. When Will won the court case, he was allowed to have a small notification on the cereal boxes?

Markel: Yes, the settlement was almost like a commentary from the Talmud. You could put it in tiny little writing on the back flap, on the bottom of the box. The doctor still invented many health foods beyond flaked cereal. He was one of the early users of psyllium. We know it now as Metamucil. He was one of the early developers of soy milk, probiotics and acidophilus. Bran cereals were a big deal for him because it wasn’t just digestive health per se. He was a big fan of regularity and wanted not only himself but also his patients to have four to five bowel movements a day, just like the gorillas he studied in the zoos that ate a high-bran diet.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the relationship of the brothers after the court case?

Markel: It was never good to begin with. They rarely spoke to one another. Their last face-to-face meeting was a terrible argument, and John died only a few months later. It’s really quite sad. John did try to make amends, but Will would have none of it. They both went to their graves very sad about how acidic this relationship became.

Conversation Starters

Why were corn flakes considered such an innovation in 1906? How did marketing expertise advance that innovation to brand fame?

What were the different strengths that the Kellogg brothers brought to the cereal business? Think in terms of business concepts like product development and operational expertise. Were they both innovative? Why did they ultimately end up in court?

What does this interview tell you about the birth of an industry? What does it take to advance an idea, then a business, then an entire business category like cereal? How do people like Charlie Post influence the process?

8 thoughts on “Corn Flake Innovation and the Battling Brothers Behind the Kellogg’s Brand

  1. corn flakes had a huge impact on Americans who lived in 1906 as they had an unhealthy diet, the introduction of this product drastically changed the way they ate and the way in which they chose foods for consumption.

  2. 1. Corn flakes had such an impact to the American society in 1906, instead of making breakfast that took like 20 minutes. You now have a cereal box which you just pour and eat it, very simple.

    2. They were both very innovative because one was a medical doctor dealing with people and their diets and how to fix them. The other was a very creative guy that made cereal out of corn and other ingredients.

    3. By reading the article he took that idea and turned it into a reality by making cereal and other goods, that can be quick and easy to eat or make. It was modern at that time so it was super successful.

  3. Cornflakes were an innovation to the time because people were used to greasy meats and vegetables which usually take a long time to cook while the cereal was easy to pour on and bowl plus milk and ready to go, “even dad was making breakfast” as the author cited and they market it to the moms and children of the time putting books to color in the cereal innovating the marketing of the moment.

    They market the cereal as the healthy option and remake the product time over time until the “perfect” product was settle, I believe both were innovative because the doctor thought about something healthy which was not the market of the era but Will marketing was something completely innovative for the era, targeting moms who worry about the health of their families. They ended in court because the doctor felt more important and wanted the business for him, he wanted to be the successful one when Will was the one that make it happened.

    It shows how they used their brand name to destroy other innovative companies but less recognize by copying their products and changing small things, it took time and hard work to take the idea of cereal to be the huge company is today.

  4. 1.
    In 1906, corn flakes were considered a major innovation. Prior to 1906, Americans ate a diet consisting of greasy foods, such as canned vegetables. This unhealthy diet led to many Americans having stomach aches. In order to combat this, corn flakes were invented. This innovation turned into brand fame when Will Kellogg used his marketing expertise to sell Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as a healthy eating option.

    2.
    Both Kellogg brothers, John and Will, brought different strengths to the cereal business. John Kellogg brought his medical expertise into the cereal business. John Kellogg was specifically interested in the digestive track, so when he realized that America’s stomach aches were caused by a diet of greasy foods, he created the innovative corn flake. Will Kellogg used his expertise in marketing in order to label corn flakes as a healthy option for those who want to live a healthy life. Indeed, these two brothers were innovative. However, when Will Kellogg left his brother’s employ he created the Battle Creek Corn Flake Company, and sold his corn flakes under the name, “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.” John Kellogg, now wanting to partake in selling cornflakes, sues Will for using the name, “Kellogg.” John Kellogg believed his fame as physician made him the rightful owner of the name, “Kellogg,” in products. However, since Will Kellogg had already spent millions of dollars in advertising with the name, “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes,” the Supreme Court rules in favor for Will Kellogg, and he now owns the right to the name.

    3.
    Throughout the interview, one could see how during the birth of an industry court battles, even between brothers, on who owns the rights to certain recipes or names, occur. It would appear that in order to advance an idea, one must solve a problem affecting a large population. When John Kellogg first created corn flakes, he did so in order to solve the stomach aches America’s population was facing, due to consuming a greasy diet. In order to advance a business, it would seem one has to innovatively market their product, such as when Will Kellogg sold Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as a healthy meal. Finally, in order to advance an entire business category, such as cereal, one needs to create a variety in the products sold. When the Kellogg company released Pop tarts or Pringles, the company diversified the products they sold, leading to advancement of the business category as the term, “cereal,” became more broad as it no longer only mentions corn flakes, it now also refers to Pop tarts and Eggo as, “cereal.” Charlie Post influences this process by engaging in unethical actions, such as stealing a competitor’s recipes, and then selling the product as his own. Furthermore, as companies attempt to steals ideas and recipes from each other, each company now has to divert resources form research and development and place it in security measures, in order to safeguard their investment.

  5. 1. Corn flakes where such an innovation because of how easy it made breakfast. Before corn flakes you had to use a wood burning stove to cook eggs and bacon which could take up a lot of time. With corn flakes you could just pour them into a bowl and pour some milk and you were done. The marketing that Will made for the brand was extremely important because it got the word out about this new food and it created excitement and trust among consumers.
    2. Will and John had very different strengths. Will was the more business savvy of the two and marketed the Kellogg’s brand early on which is how he won the court case. John was the more scientifically gifted of the two. He is the one that created all the recopies for various foods. They were both innovative because Will thought of advertising the product while John created it. They went to court because Will left to make his own company and started selling cereal. John started how own company and Will then sued John who then countersued.
    3. The birth of an industry such as cereal is usually never an easy one. Because there is so much at stake, including money for whoever gets ahead first, it can lead to tensions even among family members. To take an idea from just that to a business category like cereal takes many things. Neither Will nor John could have done anything without each other. Even modern entrepreneurs like Elon musk who seem to be able to make a whole new market for electric cars by themselves don’t do it alone. They have a team of marketers, technicians, accountants, and many others that are there to support each other. One person could not do it alone. People like Charlie Post who stole from other companies advanced unethical practices that even will partook in. Will stole ideas from his brother and other companies all the time.

  6. Cornflakes were such a huge innovation in 1906 because it was the first quick and easy breakfast meal. Before that traditional breakfasts involved cooking up eggs and bacon which was all done on a wood stove that would take time to heat up. Now people could just pour cereal out of a box and dig in. Improving on this Will realized that more people interested in Cornflakes were healthy people wanting a nutritious meal rather than sick people. He also came up with the idea to put a toy in the box introducing a cereal tradition, taking up more space, and saving money. Will later began selling other healthy cereals leading to amazing success.

  7. Why were corn flakes considered such an innovation in 1906? How did marketing expertise advance that innovation to brand fame?

    Corn flakes were considered such a huge innovation in 1906, because during that time most people’s diet consisted of greasy fat filled foods and other unhealthy diets that had causes many stomach aches and many problems with peoples health. This became so big because of how easy it was to make and how much healthier and quicker it was to make, instead of cooking greasy bacon and eggs on a wood burning stove. Marketing expertise advanced this innovation to brand fame by making corn flakes a quick and easy meal to cook which was also healthier than a lot of the food that they were having during the early 1900’s.

  8. 1. Cornflakes were considered such an innovation in 1906 because mothers didn’t have to make breakfast, such as eggs and bacon.

    2. The different strengths that the Kellogg brothers brought to the cereal business were each unique. Will advertiseed for Kellog’s flakes and ran the business aspect of it. While John being the physician developed a Corn flakes formula with the help of Will. John also used his doctor status to encourage people to buy his corn flakes. They ultimately ended up in court because John started selling his own cereal which detered from Will’s sales. This caused Will to sue John because of him taking away from his brand.

    3. What this interview tells me about the birth of an industry is that the beginnings are always difficult. There may be fighting between family members or their ideas may be stolen but in the end sometimes they may be successful.

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