An incredible American company turned 140 this year, one which I doubt many would consider innovative let alone revolutionary. But in twelve short years after its founding in 1877, Henry Crowell’s Quaker Oats company would take America by storm in a capitalistic blitzkrieg.
Poor Scottish immigrants, and horses, were considered to be the only consumers of oats in the mid-1800s. The average American had no inclination of going near the stuff. This left Crowell with a demand dilemma after suppliers like himself started utilizing continuous-processing techniques. Lo, with his ‘all-roller’ flour mill, his machines could take in raw outs as input, and output processed meal, packaged and ready for shipping in one automatic & continuous flow. But nobody wanted what he was producing — his inventories outpaced demand by a factor of two in 1882.
Crowell innovations turned from machines to marketing over the next few years, and it’s genuinely remarkable how he would bend the minds of the masses to meet the whims of his business.
National advertising wasn’t a concept in the 1880, but in nine years, the Quaker Oats company would have invented testimonials, scientific endorsements, prizes, top-box couponing, and give-aways. Every tactic in the book, largely, we owe to this humble oat meal company.
On the other side of the marketing spectrum (in contrast to publicity stunts which Quaker Oats also pioneered) are strategies like brand-awareness, trademarks, slogans, and design. The Quaker Oats company was first to coin all of these.
At first, Crowell was pushing bulk oat meal just like the suppliers of canned foods, soap, cigarettes, and photographic film. Then, he had the notion of branding his product in a memorable way, and boxing the oats in convenient 24oz packs. This winning maneuver was a line of least expectation for the American consumer and undoubtedly, paved the way for Crowell’s success.
By 1889, he had solved his demand crisis, invented a dozen modes of marketing, and was on the path to becoming among the few successful vertically integrated companies in the second industrial revolution.
Minds like mush
Did Crowell’s overstep his ambition? Don’t forget, Americans genuinely scorned oats up until that time. It’s fun to entertain the idea that what if oat meal is no more nutritious than the shipping paper it comes in, but we eat it, still 140 years later, because of marketing & nothing more.