Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cheerios Goes Fruity

It’s easy to see the role we all take as curators on behalf of each other. Peer review sites play an obvious curatorial role. Retail stores such as Apple and Whole Foods curate physical retail spaces for their customers.

But can a single product brand be a curator?

The primary tenets for a successful curator are:
- know your audience intimately
- have a clear, consistent, relevant, and sustainable point-of-view
- challenge the audience beyond their comfort level (i.e., innovate)
- create experiences so rewarding that you build loyalty

Let’s take a look at a venerable brand that has fended off competitors for decades. It has also spawned six successful line extensions.

The brand is Cheerios, one of the only cereals whose appeal spans from infants to adults. Against the criteria above, I think Cheerios knows its audience, innovates by adding new flavors and has created tremendous brand loyalty.

But has the brand stuck to a clear point-of-view that consumers can trust?

Released just last month, Fruity Cheerios is the brand’s seventh extension. And of course, some have claimed the company’s gone too far. One blogger spelled it out rather clearly: Cheerios has become “sugar sellout.” But has it, really?

Fruity Cheerios still boasts that it has “25% less sugar than the leading fruity cereal.”

That’s a difference of 14g versus 9g of sugar (It’s worth noting that Fruit Loops has a line extension called Fruit Loops 1/3 Less Sugar, but it’s not the leading SKU). Here’s the important question: Does going after Fruit Loops undermine Cheerios’ credibility as a provider of healthy breakfasts?

What would likely surprise the critics is that Cheerios’ earlier line extensions actually have even MORE sugar than Fruity Cheerios:

Frosted Cheerios: 13g* (1995)
Apple Cinnamon Cheerios: 13g* (1988)
Berry Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2003)
Yogurt Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2005)
Fruity Cheerios: 9g* (2006)
Honey Nut Cheerios: 9g (1979)
Regular Cheerios: 1g

* delineates the more recent extensions
(dates obtained from Wikipedia)

Unlike those other extensions, Fruity Cheerios cereal actually looks like a famous sugary cereal. Consumers know that. And in marketing, perception is far more potent than reality, so the folks marketing Fruity Cheerios hit the health message extremely hard with a brand manager’s dream, a laundry list of attributes, all on the front panel:

whole grain, naturally flavored, real fruit juice, and 25% less sugar

That’s the rational stuff. On the emotional side, they also distance themselves from Toucan Sam and his pirate pals. The Fruity Cheerios package design leans more toward contemporary pop art than sugary kids cereal (notwithstanding the brand manager’s need to junk it up with things like the biggest “New” snipe in history… as a former brand manager, I say this with empathy).

Most striking is the advertising. I’ve seen the introductory spot about six times, all during primetime (not during Saturday morning cartoons). Kids do star in the spot, but the environment is so wondrous and innocent that adults will be swept up in its lack of commercial pretence. Kids jump onto giant cereal pieces floating in milk life live preservers. All to Donovan’s angelic tune “Happiness Runs.”

My feeling is that this is not THE sign that Cheerios has diluted its brand image by lowering its standards. It’s merely ONE of the signs. But, this one is far more evident because this one looks like Fruit Loops. You can’t fault the strategy, though. The Cheerios juggernaut is ever powerful and it has kept its original flagship Cheerios true to the promise. These line extensions give people (and parents) the warm fuzzies of “Cheerios” with the hedonic pleasure of sugar. The powerful equity of Cheerios masks the fact that the majority of the SKUs are sugar cereals.

It’s a great example of the Curator Effect in that people trust the flagship to the extent that consumers transfer that good feeling to anything endorsed by them. Think of Quaker. The flagship is natural, simple oats. Too much of the rest of the vast line is nothing short of junk food.

Still, powerful equity builds trust that halos over to anything that shares the same parentage. The Curator Effect is not always used for good. Don’t even get me started on Pepsi’s Smart Spot . I’ll leave that for a future post.

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