It was 1941, and Lester Borchardt had a crazy idea. His employer, General Mills, was looking for a product that would compete with Wheaties and Corn Flakes in the growing ready-to-eat cereal category. The competing brands were made from corn; General Mills placed its bet on oats. But since America already had oatmeal, the company needed a marketing edge.
Enter Borchardt, a physicist, electrical engineer and food technician, who thought that a batter of oat flour could be puffed into fun shapes. The company let him experiment for a while until management finally decided to quash the idea. Borchardt persisted and, several months later, perfected the puffing machine. One of the things it produced was puffed oats in the shape of a tiny inner tube— the unmistakable shape of Cheerios.
Actually, the company called it Cheerioats, which got shortened later owing to a trademark suit. But when the product hit store shelves in 1941, billed as "a satisfactory, tasty, ready-to-eat oat cereal," it was a fast hit.
And still is. According to Euromonitor data, Cheerios remains the No. 1 breakfast cereal with Americans, who bought $994 million worth of the stuff in 2014. As food blogger Tori Avey put it, "Cheerios is one of those iconic American brands that will always be with us."
She's probably right, even though these are not the best times for breakfast cereals, whose numbers have been steadily slipping for five years now. Yogurt shakes, fruit and nut bars have been slowly nudging cereal off the table.
Where Cheerios has an edge is with the healthy pitch. Those puffed O's really are whole grain oats, low in sugar and rich in iron. While the benefits of soluble fiber might seem like contemporary marketing fare, Cheerios actually served it up from the start. "When Cheerios was launched in 1941, it served two key purposes," said marketing director Susanne Prucha. "It brought the health benefits of oats to everyone, and, more importantly, it brought families to the breakfast table."
In recent decades, as concerns about cholesterol and heart disease have taken center stage, Cheerios has doubled down on the health marketing. (Last year, for example, it produced a YouTube video starring Manitoba farmer Edgar Scheurer, who supplies oats to Cheerios.)
But families never came to the breakfast table for bland mush, which is why taste has done as much as anything to keep the product selling. Prevention magazine recently listed Cheerios among 10 recommended cereals that "don't taste like twigs." It's also no accident that Honey Nut Cheerios—a sweeter variant introduced in 1979—still leads sales.
General Mills has reason to be grateful Lester Borchardt held fast to his puffing machine idea in the 1940s. In fact, the only flaw in this otherwise perfect founding story is that Borchardt's daughter, truth be told, preferred Kellogg's Corn Flakes.