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.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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