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05/27/2010 Lessons from Cap'n Crunch: Tell a great story

I've been fascinated by the stories about the cereal Cap'n Crunch. It shows the impact of a powerful story and narrative.

Quaker Oats had done market research in the early 1960's and found that kids wanted a cereal that would stay crunchy rather than getting mushy in milk. They developed a material that they could safely add to cereal to keep it crunchy.

Then they went to Jay Ward, who had created the brilliant Rocky & Bullwinkle (one of my all time favorite shows) and asked him to develop a marketing campaign to sell the product. Ward and his team came up with the character of Cap'n Crunch, his crew of four kids (Alfie, Brunhilde, Carlyle and Dave) and a dog (Seadog). He also had an archenemy, Jean LaFoot the Pirate.

Captain Crunch art
Once Quaker Oats saw the first commercials, they fell in love with Cap'n Crunch and only then started producing Cap'n Crunch cereal. The kids fell in love with it too, because it flew off the shelf once it launched.

I used to look at this story as an example of the Mad Men era to show the power of the ad industry. I thought it showed that you didn't need a product to be successful; all you needed was a good commercial.

Well, I think I had it wrong. The Cap'n Crunch history shows something different:

If you create a compelling story, people will buy your product. If you intricately link your story and your product more people will get behind both the story and your brand.

I was one of those kids in the 60s who loved, I mean loved, Cap'n Crunch. It was like an extra dose of Saturday cartoons interspersed throughout the day. I loved the characters and their adventures and I couldn't wait to see the commercials. Of course, I forced my Mom to buy me the cereal, even though she wanted to buy me something healthier. The stories in those commercials, and the characters that played in them, were some of the best TV around, I thought.

Today, we don't need to hire an expensive studio, or rely on geniuses like Jay Ward to create our stories, although it helps. We have the means to produce our stories at our fingertips.

What we don't always have is the imagination, creativity, whimsy and focus to create compelling stories around our brands, products and organization. Many marketers are still stuck trying to spin stories around products, stories that feel contrived or disconnected. Imagine instead creating you story beforehand and building your product or service afterward. What an amazing world of marketing we'd have.

What story do you want to tell? How would you make your story fun, engaging and worthy of following?

There are a couple of key points, for me, in the Cap'n Crunch saga:
  • The initial impetus behind the project was to solve a problem or need: soggy cereal. That input came from actual customers.
  • Once Quaker Oats knew they could solve the problem, they took the most far-out gamble they could - asking Jay Ward to come up with a creative narrative. It was a solution that was way out of the box.
  • The narrative then informed product development. By building that into the product, Quaker Oats ensured that they could build an ongoing story and adventure.
It may feel frivolous, but a great task for your marketing group or agency would be to come up with your own Cap'n Crunch story for your next product or service. Talk about injecting energy into your day-to-day. The question is: are you ready to take a risk and create your story?


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