Mill City Museum: A Lesson in Marketing

Mill City Museum. Note the 21st century additions bridging the venerable construction.

In September, my wife, Anni, and I traveled to the Twin Cities to attend her high school reunion. In keeping with the spirit of history and nostalgia, we visited the Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis, overlooking the Mississippi River. The site was formerly the Washburn A Mill, at one time the world’s largest flour production complex.

Across its many exhibits–including the Flour Tower, a grain elevator turned into a multi-level multimedia tour–the Mill City Museum tells the story of the flour milling industry and the “Mill City” itself, Minneapolis. It also provides a profound lesson in marketing by demonstrating two fundamental concepts:

Jason and Anni at Mill City Musuem

The Funky Adjunct and his wife, Anni, at Mill City Museum observation deck.

The Washburn A Mill, the museum’s exoskeleton, exemplifies the production orientation era in marketing, the period from the Industrial Revolution to the 1930s. The very ability to mass produce and distribute a transformative product became the basis of marketing dominance. John D. Rockefeller had kerosene. H. J. Heinz had processed foods. Henry Ford had affordable automobiles (which Rockefeller interests filled with gasoline.) Products like these changed the American lifestyle in the decades after the Civil War.

For his part in the Industrial Revolution and the production era of marketing, Cadwallader C. Washburn had flour. As the owner of the Washburn A Mill, he seized his advantage with a key marketing environmental force–technology. Turbines drove the mighty mill, thanks to St. Anthony Falls just beyond its doors. Burgeoning railways brought in North American grain and sent out milled flour to domestic and global markets–a mechanized supply chain and marketing channel. Automated steel rollers replaced the biblical technology of millstones, unlocking for all consumers the prized white flour that had been reserved for the wealthy.

Betty Crocker through the decades in the “Promoting Mill Products” exhibit.

After World War I, Minneapolis’ milling industry ebbed, with the marketing environmental force of technology again asserting itself, this time in the form of electric power that broke the geographic monopolies of hydropower. Concurrently, the production orientation era of marketing gave way to the sales orientation era. Mass production goods were no longer marvels; they were commonplace as competition grew during the early 20th century. Promotion predominated in the marketing mix to sway consumers. The Mill City Museum’s “Promoting Mill Products” exhibit was my favorite, showcasing branding, packaging, advertising, sales promotion, and public relations that answered the call of the sales era. Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy are enduring icons of the milling industry’s promotional creativity.

The Washburn A Mill closed in 1965. It was again a new time in marketing–the marketing orientation era arising in the 1950s as marketers used research to identify and understand consumers, in turn offering products that met their needs. The sociocultural environmental force compelled change in the milling industry as baking from scratch declined. The industry responded with easy-to-make mixes and ready-to-eat products. The great flour mill that began turning when Rutherford B. Hayes was president fell silent when Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. One marketing era made it mandatory. Another made it obsolete.

In 1991, a fire devastated the shuttered mill. Fortunately, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency preserved the site and the Minnesota Historical Society built the Mill City Museum within the cleaned and reinforced ruins of the Washburn A Mill. Today, the museum stands testament to bygone ways of production and consumption and to the continuous advance of marketing.

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Public Relations, Public Speaking and Trump

With his unconventional campaign for president, Donald Trump offers lessons in two subjects I teach: public relations and public speaking.

Public Relations: The New York Times reports that Trump is willing to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign. This figure is less than the $1 billion he had originally pledged, reflecting the “free nationwide publicity” he has been receiving. Trump canceled a planned $15 million ad buy this summer due to the media saturation he was already enjoying.

“Publicity” is the operative term in Donald Trump’s public relations efforts. In his textbook The Practice of Public Relations, Fraser Seitel describes publicity as dealing directly with the media to generate coverage, “either by initiating the communication or by reacting to inquiries.” Seitel deems publicity more powerful than advertising because it creates news content versus paid content, conveying a third-party endorsement.

Writing for Forbes, Seitel identifies Trump’s celebrity status as a pillar of his public relations success. Trump has conducted nonstop publicity since the 1970s in support of his business ventures and his brand. This duration in the public eye outstrips the seemingly perennial campaigning of any other candidate including Hillary Clinton.

Public Speaking: On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon praised Donald Trump for his ability to speak “off the cuff.” Trump verified that he speaks without notes or teleprompter to maintain eye contact and overall connection with the audience. Carmine Gallo reinforces the strength of Trump’s extemporaneous style, citing a Stanford study that leaders who make extensive eye contact while speaking are perceived as more competent.

In his textbook The Art of Public Speaking, Stephen Lucas says that a properly executed extemporaneous speech–with the speaker referring to an outline versus reading a scripted presentation word for word–can have “the spontaneity and enthusiasm of an unrehearsed talk.” The ability to increase eye contact with the audience is a benefit of this speaking approach. Trump’s terse syntax and punchlines also substantiate his abandonment of the traditional political script per Barton Swaim, former speechwriter for politician Mark Sanford.

Conclusion: Fraser Seitel presents three main communication theories in The Practice of Public Relations

  • The content is the message
  • The medium is the message
  • The person is the message

Trump most obviously aligns with the last theory focusing on the person, with charisma being the primary attribute. At the same time, Trump exemplifies the second theory popularized by Marshall McLuhan; he commands every medium, establishing himself in the traditional media era of broadcast and print, fluent in today’s social media.

The first theory emphasizing content constitutes the unknown about the Trump candidacy. Critics gave Trump less-than-stellar marks in his September 16 debate performance for lacking specifics. His public comments continue to be insulting and incendiary. Still, he leads in the polls among GOP candidates.

Can Trump’s main competitors defeat him through mastery of one of the above communication theories? Per polling conducted after September 16, Carly Fiorina was considered the winner of the GOP debate due to her displayed knowledge of the issues–content is the message, where Trump has made little effort to assert himself. News media have echoed this victory–medium is the message, as third-party endorsement and social media sharing validate the conclusion, boosting Fiorina’s share of media attention. In the same polling, Ben Carson held the highest favorability rating–person is the message, Trump’s greatest strength.

Should Trump change his ways if upcoming polls reveal a shift away from him? Many detected a more conventional stance in the September 16 debate. Columnist Ramesh Ponnuru offers a cautionary headline: “What if the New Trump is just…Boring?”

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The Atomic Press Release

August 6 marks the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

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