How do you sell a cereal known for decades as “The breakfast of champions” to younger consumers who may believe “champions” is a quaint word and may perceive breakfast as something from a food truck, washed down with an energy drink?
General Mills, the maker of Wheaties cereal, is busily seeking answers to that question, variations of which are also vexing other venerable brands that hope to stave off extinction. In a promotion that is to begin on Tuesday, Wheaties will try to tap into three affinities of younger consumers — working out, technology and nontraditional sports — while offering a prize rooted in its heritage: a chance to appear nationally on the Wheaties box.
The promotion, called the Wheaties Next Challenge, will ask consumers to vote for one of five athletes selected by Wheaties to win the appearance on the package in early 2015. In one twist, the athletes are stars of sports like mixed martial arts, lacrosse and motocross rather than the mainstay sports like baseball and football played by previous box-front celebrities. In another twist, fans of each athlete may vote through Aug. 31 by exercising and then logging their workouts through websites and apps from a fitness technology company, MapMyFitness. Executives at General Mills say the promotion represents the first time that consumers are being given an opportunity to decide who appears on Wheaties boxes distributed nationally. The promotion, handled internally at General Mills, is among several initiatives at the company that are meant to add contemporary appeal to its pantry staples.
For instance, General Mills this week is releasing a commercial for Honey Nut Cheerios that pairs the brand character, Buzz the bee, with the popular Internet character Grumpy Cat; the commercial was created by Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, part of the Publicis Groupe.
And for Lucky Charms cereal, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, General Mills is running a commercial that sidesteps the brand’s usual target audience, children, and aims at young adults. Promotions for Lucky Charms, and another General Mills brand, Betty Crocker, have been directed at consumers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
“As we think about trying to reach a younger, more active demographic,” said David Oehler, marketing manager for Wheaties at General Mills, it makes sense to “engage with athletes, and sports, we know this younger demographic are following.”
“And we know how popular MapMyFitness is with this group of consumers,” he added, which is good because exercising dovetails with “what Wheaties stands for: putting your own sweat equity into” athletic endeavors.
The Honey Nut Cheerios commercial with Grumpy Cat follows a spot for the brand with the rapper Nelly that has garnered more than 5.7 million views on YouTube since its introduction in August. “We’re looking for things relevant to consumers today in pop culture” to become “more socially connected,” said Gail Peterson, associate director of marketing for Honey Nut Cheerios and Multi Grain Cheerios at General Mills, so Honey Nut Cheerios will seem “like a new and relevant brand, not your grandmother’s cereal.”
That is important because Honey Nut Cheerios, introduced in 1979, is 35 years old — “a middle-aged cereal,” she added.
Still, it is crucial that efforts to be more contemporary are “driven to who and what we are as a brand,” Peterson said, to avoid seeming exploitive or following the leader. Because Honey Nut Cheerios is first in sales among American cereals, she said, ads with pop-culture themes fit “with what we are trying to say, ‘It’s the cereal everybody likes and everybody eats.’”
Likewise, Oehler said, the Wheaties Next promotion is not out of character for the brand because it offers “stories about great athletes who embrace that championship mentality” for which Wheaties is long known.
If the nontraditional sports are intended to make Wheaties seem more up-to-date, what does Wheaties do for the new brands that are its promotional partners?
“Wheaties is one of those iconic brands, as mainstream as you can get in the United States,” said Michael Mossholder, senior vice president for global marketing partnerships at Ultimate Fighting Championship in Las Vegas, one of whose athletes, Anthony Pettis, is the mixed martial arts fighter participating in the promotion.
“As we continue to mature as a sport, the opportunity to have one of our champions on the box — the same place where the Michael Jordans and the Lou Gehrigs and the Muhammad Alis of the world have been — is an honor for us,” he added.
At MapMyFitness, which is owned by Under Armour, “we’re much younger than these companies we’re working with,” acknowledged Robin Thurston, president of MapMyFitness in Austin, Texas, referring to brands like Wheaties and the Buick division of General Motors.
But “working with big brands, from a strategic perspective, helps bring attention to fitness and health,” he said. “For us, it’s about reaching more customers, and our hope is that fitness is for everyone.”
Efforts to publicize the promotion will include an extensive presence in social media like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, using the accounts of Wheaties, MapMyFitness, the athletes and the organizations related to their sports. The athletes, in addition to Pettis, are Ryan Dungey, motocross; Blake Leeper, representing para-athletes and track and field; Rob Pannell, lacrosse; and Christen Press, women’s soccer.