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Spirit of the Founder

Transparency and empathy guided the spinoff that created Kellanova and WK Kellogg Co. By Kris Bahner.

After joining Kellogg Company 18 years ago, Kris Bahner rose to Chief Global Corporate Affairs Officer. In that capacity, she helped plan and execute the spinoff that created a global snacking powerhouse called Kellanova, and a North American cereal giant called WK Kellogg Co. Kris talks about lessons learned amid that transformation, and the central role that communications and empathy played along the way. Her account is compiled from interviews with Brunswick Partners Jayne Rosefield and Monica Gupta.

As the spinoff became more and more real, I knew we needed help to bring all our stakeholders along with us on the journey. I have led a lot of things in my career, but I’d never led spin communications. So, the first thing I did was seek out partners at Brunswick who not only brought the experience I needed but were also people I could trust and who would care about the work we were doing together. I knew that this process was going to be about relationships—about empathy—and I needed people close to me who understood the power in that.

Together, we formed a deep understanding of the thesis behind why we were undertaking a risky change of this magnitude. That thesis was our bedrock. Then, we began building our communications plan, starting with comprehensive stakeholder mapping.

Investors were a core group—we needed to convince them of the rationale in order to increase value and move to the top quartile of our sector. But our people had to come first. We knew that we couldn’t deliver for investors without the support of our people. We needed them to be with us on this journey.

To our people, Kellogg’s is more than a brand and Kellogg Company is more than a place we come to work. We’re a 118-year-old company with an incredibly strong sense of identity and community harkening back the legacy created by our founder. We represent stability, community, and family. Multiple generations from the same families work here. It becomes part of your identity. Being able to say, “I work for Kellogg Company,” is a badge of honor. So, there was always the concern that this change might present as out of character for our employees. But critically, we felt our founder would not see it as out of character, and in fact, the decision to separate the two businesses would honor his legacy.

The fact that we still call him “Mr. Kellogg” indicates the reverence we have for him. He was bold and innovative. He expanded the business very early on, into many international markets that we’ve now served for generations. He was also one of the world’s foremost philanthropists, an early sustainability leader, a well-being guru long before it was popular, and intensely focused on his people, putting in place some really advanced policies for his time. We continue to invoke his values to this day—in our Better Days Promise corporate responsibility programs, our focus on philanthropy, wellbeing and sustainability, and in how we treat each other every day. That focus on our people and our role in society speaks to the caliber of our employees today, just like it did then.


Kris Bahner, Senior Vice President and Chief Global Corporate Affairs Officer at Kellanova.

To bring this group of employees on this journey to transform the company, we had to help them embrace being bold the way Mr. Kellogg was. If we’re going to continue to succeed going forward, this is what it’s going to take.

Transparency was critical. Sometimes leaders think, “Well, I have nothing new to say, so no need to gather everyone.” But we decided early on that we were going to have a regular cadence of two-way communication, and we were going to be there for employees every step of the way. We could stand up in a global town hall with nothing new to share—but we were there. And once you show up, it turns out there is plenty to talk about and questions to answer.

The name change was something that required a lot of discussion because everybody felt heavily invested in the Kellogg Company name. There were some strongly held beliefs, and rightfully so. The Kellogg Company name was part of the fabric of the company. Internationally, people felt like the name allowed them to compete in certain markets, that without it they would lose their negotiating power. Our North American region felt equally passionate about the name. For both companies, the name supported not just the products, but inspired a sense of history, purpose and direction that paved the path forward.

In the end, we kept coming back to the fact that, for so many stakeholders, Kellogg Company was synonymous with cereal.

It would have been inherently confusing for the company with a snacks-led portfolio to keep the name. The name Kellanova elegantly captured our message of moving forward and allowed us to keep meaningful components of the old name in the new brand: the signature red color, the script, the big “K” and the root “Kell,” and all the meaning imbued in those elements. Kellanova represents a connection to the past while signaling our ambition for the future, setting us up to be the world’s best-performing snacks-led powerhouse.

Looking back on the past two years, I think that our relationships with our stakeholders are stronger for having been through the spinoff. That’s especially true where the conversation was the hardest—for example, the Battle Creek community, who were concerned about our continued presence and commitment. Given the magnitude of the change we were undertaking, we knew how important it was to spend time explaining the rationale and conveying our continued commitment to the community, as evidenced by our decision to maintain dual campuses in Battle Creek and Chicago. We had to show up with authenticity, face-to-face with the senior-most people, saying, “I’m here. Here’s the state of play. Ask me anything.” That was hugely trust-building.

People want to be seen and known and heard. These are the truisms of humanity, and they’re at the core of corporate communications.

We’re two separate companies now, but it doesn’t stop there. Now, it becomes: How does Kellanova show up as a global, snacks-led powerhouse, especially for those who knew us as Kellogg Company? How do we fulfill our promise of being a bold, innovative company as we embark on this next chapter? We may not be the biggest, but we’re going to be the best.

And since then, we have been fulfilling that promise. We came out of the gate in the new year very strong, with amazing, creative Pop-Tarts Bowl and Cheez-It Bowl sponsorships, for instance. Those brand activations were really successful. It was all anyone could talk about, even outside the US. It became part of the cultural zeitgeist, and it keeps our food top of mind for consumers. When we say we’re going to show up differently, this is how we’re going to follow through. These are some of our many proof points.

Through it all, it was the empathy and the relationships that mattered most. You need to care about people. To speed up, you need to slow down. You need to take the time to listen, and to talk to people honestly, even when the truth is hard.

People want to be seen and known and heard. These are the truisms of humanity, and they’re at the core of corporate communications. The truth is, doing something this vast and doing it the right way is not always going to be the quickest process. It might mean one-on-one conversations with more than a hundred people—but you must do what’s necessary to bring everyone with you. I’m incredibly proud of the work of my global Corporate Affairs team and our partnership with Brunswick.

And now, we have all the pieces of the puzzle: the people, the brands, the right markets. It’s all there. To look at that human element again, with these components in place, with the fantastic opportunities facing us, those people can realize their personal and collective potential. It’s very energizing.

Who doesn’t want to be part of something bigger than themselves? We all do. And we were part of a project that was transformational for a whole lot of people. It brings tears to my eyes, it really does. It’s pretty amazing.

The Brunswick Review also interviewed Steve Cahillane, Chairman and CEO of Kellanova, and Gary Pilnick, Chairman and CEO of WK Kellogg Co, about the future they see for their respective companies. And Stacy Flathau, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer for WK Kellogg Co describes a Battle Creek upbringing steeped in the benefits of cereal.

photographs: courtesy of kellanova

The Authors

Jayne Rosefield

Senior Partner, Chicago

Jayne is the founding partner and head of Brunswick’s Chicago office. She also leads Brunswick's Global Consumer Industries practice and has a wealth of experience helping clients navigate perennial reputational challenges unique to the sector.

Monica Gupta

Partner, Chicago

Monica Gupta is a partner at Brunswick Group, where she leads complex client mandates involving business transformations, change communications, investor engagement and M&A across industries and sectors.