The bright orange box. The proud athlete on the front. One brand has been the dominant symbol of American triumph in sports: Wheaties.
Wheaties, then called Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes, hit store shelves in 1921. From a marketing and advertising view, it was a pioneer from the start. Many claim Wheaties even had the first ever jingle in a commercial, in a spot from 1926.
An effort that began with testimonials from baseball players in the 1930s has grown into a series of marketing partnerships between the cereal brand and a seemingly bottomless roster of sports legends.
Wheaties earned their way into broad awareness with American consumers after forging a partnership with baseball in the 1930s. Armed with a slew of endorsements from big name players, including Lou Gehrig, the cereal was no longer pitching itself as a crunchy cereal and breakfast option, it was selling athletic aspiration.
In 1956, Wheaties moved the athletes’ photos moved from the back to the front of the box, with Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards. A two-time gold medalist at the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Games, Richards was the first athlete featured on the front of the box. Oddly, the company selected a picture where Richards is not vaulting, but rather, riding a bike!
The athletes’ pictures, showcased on the box alongside the “breakfast of champions” slogan, are a beacon to grocery store shoppers: be like your heroes, and buy a box. Dr. John Stanton, marketing professor at St. John’s University, explained it this way: “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 box doesn’t hurt either.
Over time, Wheaties enlisted their sponsored athletes as spokespeople, traveling across the country to promote fitness. Bruce Jenner, who, prior to becoming Caitlyn Jenner, won gold in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, was on three boxes: as a pole vaulter, runner, and javelin thrower. He spent a large part of 1977 traveling across the US, promoting fitness on behalf of General Mills — and helping Wheaties further its brand.
The General Mills marketing team works 18 months to two years ahead to identify which athletes can help them increase Wheaties sales. “When you’re on a Wheaties box, it’s a signal to the world that you have ascended to the top of your sport,” General Mills marketing manager Dave Oehler told Eater in 2016. According to a study in the Journal of Advertising Research, athlete-endorsed product sales on average rise 4% following the announcement of an endorsement when an athlete has a major achievement, such as a newly won Olympic medal.
Among the more than two dozen Olympians who have been on the box are gymnast Mary Lou Retton, swimmer Michael Phelps, track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. Sometimes, an entire team is featured, such as the 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
The charismatic athlete is often featured in a TV commercial alongside the launch of their presence on the box, as Retton was here:
For Olympic athletes, appearing on a Wheaties box is a launching pad for their personal brands. Since professional athletes tend to compete year round, in broadly televised competitions, they have an easier time creating and maintaining their appeal as spokespeople. For the Olympian, making it onto a Wheaties box is a signal to the world that they are on equal footing, if for a short time.