In-Home Research: What a 6am Breakfast in Mexico Taught the CEO of the World’s Largest Cereal Maker

It’s 6 A.M. in Queretaro, Mexico, about 130 miles north of Mexico City. Most of the residents are just waking up. But one woman is already dressed and has visitors in her kitchen. No, this isn’t the time of day nor type of guests she usually entertains. These are senior executives from the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek, Michigan.

As the world’s largest cereal maker, they’ve got a vested interest in understanding how people go about their breakfast routines. And in-home research like this is one of the ways they get that understanding. But this visit had a number of the executives scratching their heads.

And one of those executives was then-CEO, John Bryant. He watched as the mom went about preparing the meal for her household of five. It was what John calls a “heavy” breakfast: eggs, ham, cheese, toast, juice, and some fruit. As he watched the family enjoy the meal, he noticed two boxes of Kellogg’s cereal on top of the refrigerator. After they finished breakfast, he asked the mom, through an interpreter, if she ever ate cereal.

She responded, “Yes, every day.”

John first looked at his interpreter—not sure he’d gotten the right translation—and then back to the mom. His look of confusion must have crossed the language barrier quite easily, because she responded unprompted, “Para la cena.”

John looked back at his interpreter, still confused, and then heard the unexpected translation: “For dinner.”

The words hung in the air for a few seconds as the executives’ eyes jumped from the interpreter, to the mom, and then to each other. For a breakfast cereal maker, finding out your consumer is using your product for dinner is a bit like a winter coat manufacturer finding out people are wearing its products in the summer. It just wasn’t what they were expecting.

On further research, Kellogg’s learned that this mom wasn’t unusual. Thirty percent of cereal in Mexico is consumed for the evening meal. Imagine how different the company might think about the ingredients in the cereal, or the way it communicates in its advertising, knowing a third of its consumers eat cereal at night.

The Lesson

Today, John tells that story to keep managers from thinking too dogmatically about how consumers use their product. “It’s too easy,” he explains, “to think of cereal only being consumed for breakfast, between six and eight o’clock in the morning, at home, with milk, from a bowl, with a spoon, and so on.” It could be in the afternoon, straight from the box, and dry! His lesson: “Don’t force your assumptions on our consumers. Our products are more versatile than we give them credit for. And so are our consumers.”

The lesson for all us is to get out of the office and visit your customers where they live, work, and use your product. It’s often the best way to learn something about them that you didn’t already know.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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