Small Shifts Keep Brands Relevant

Allen AdamsonApril 28, 202224074 min

It’s pretty easy to see how rapid and dramatic changes in technology and media necessitate a shift for companies. It is not quite as easy to see the portents of change that would necessitate a shift for companies in more homespun categories, like packaged goods. But those portents are indeed there. And, as a result of the seismic transformations in media and technology—read, social media—they are not nearly as subtle as they once were. Even the most traditional of packaged goods companies have had to shift, at the very least, marketing gears to keep up with changes in consumer attitudes toward everything from what constitutes healthy eating to what constitutes a family unit. When an ultra-traditional megabrand like Cheerios, for example, addresses mixed marriages and makes the daughter of an interracial couple the star of one of its advertising campaigns, it’s an indication that no brand is immune from the need to shift to stay relevantly differentiated.

The shift for Cheerios was not in the makeup of its product, but in the makeup of its marketing.

Let’s start with a bit of background. In 1941, General Mills was looking for a product that would complete with Wheaties and Corn Flakes in the growing ready-to-eat cereal category. Wheaties and Cornflakes were both made from corn. To differentiate its product, General Mills decided to develop a cereal made from oats. Needing to further differentiate its offering from oatmeal, it perfected a machine that produced puffed oats in the shape of tiny inner tubes—a shape that was to take on iconic status through the years.

Cheerios remains a leading breakfast cereal with Americans who bought $994 million of the brand in 2014. Cheerios was launched in 1941 with two purposes in mind. First, General Mills aimed to bring the health benefits of oats into the mainstream. Second, General Mills positioned the brand to bring families together at the breakfast table. Over the last couple of decades, as concerns about cholesterol and heart disease have taken hold, Cheerios doubled down on the health benefits in its marketing by shifting its message to address the health issue. At the same time, Cheerios executed significant marketing shifts in recognition of how the composition of families has changed.

“Your job as a marketer is to explore an underlying truth,” said Mark Addicks, the former chief marketing officer at General Mills, during our conversation. “Consumer attitudes have shifted, and we’ve had to shift our messaging. A brand’s culture should expect to be continually changing, especially in this world we live in, which is very fast, very connected, very news-oriented, and in which consumers quickly learn new patterns. We absolutely need to make shifts in recognition of this. It used to be that you had an annual meeting and everyone would just keep following the same GPS. Now, you wake up and life has changed. The place to start shifting your focus for a brand is when the brand is in a healthy place.”

Among the societal breakthrough campaigns that General Mills produced in response was an ad titled “Adoption,” based on a true event, about a couple that adopts two children from Eastern Europe. The spot starts with a woman and man riding in a van on their way to the orphanage to pick up their children. The children are a little shy, but beyond the uncertainty, the scenes portray a great deal of hope for the new family. On the plane ride home, the woman gives Cheerios to the two children, making a little smiley face out of the Os. The boy and girl smile in response.

Another of the General Mills consumer stories brought to life was a series featuring a little girl named Gracie. In the first spot, “Just Checking,” Gracie asks her mother if it’s true that Cheerios are good for your heart. A beat later, her father wakes up from a nap in the other room with Cheerios all over his chest. In another spot in the series, during which the family is sharing breakfast together, Gracie’s parents share the news that she will soon have a new baby brother; her response is a request for a new puppy. That the mother is white and the father is black won General Mills kudos for showing what real families look like.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Cheerios has generated 80 percent of all digital engagement in the cereal category. While there was some derogatory feedback, most of the online conversation has been very positive. As for the most recent health-related messaging, General Mills produced a YouTube video starring Manitoba farmer Edgar Scheurer, who supplies oats for Cheerios. From the farm to the table, the company wanted to reinforce that oat seeds, from which Cheerios are produced, are transformed into a healthy breakfast—so it is going back to the, well, roots of its product.

“You need to be culturally in tune with what’s important to your customers and potential customers,” said Addicks. “We’re not looking to make massive shifts. We just need to be constantly ready to make the little shifts—changes that address the conversations people are having—to keep our relevance high. It’s a huge challenge to identify and seize an opportunity before performance metrics kick in. But whether it’s pure food, or being able to pronounce the ingredients, or family dynamics, the objective is to lock onto a key insight and build on it.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel. Excerpted from their book Shift Ahead: How The Best Companies Stay Relevant In A Fast Changing World

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