Friday, February 27, 2015

Taco Bell goes for Cap'n Crunch

Taco Bell restaurants announced Friday the testing of a new co-branded breakfast item featuring Quaker's Cap'n Crunch Berries cereal. The trial is currently underway in Bakersfield, California, and if it goes over well the chances are good we'll see it spread elsewhere. These "Cap'n Crunch Delights" are deep-fried donut holes stuffed with icing and rolled in the cereal, and will be available all day.

Certainly this is a novel addition to Taco Bell's menu, and perhaps it represents some out of the box thinking at Quaker as a way to strengthen brand awareness. This could be the type of innovation cereal companies need to try to keep relevant, bolster traditional cereal sales, in a marketplace that seems to shrug with indifference over the typical breakfast fare.

(Source: Nation's Restaurant News)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: General Mills' French Toast Crunch

The big cereal story a couple of months ago was General Mills' reintroduction of a previously discontinued cereal, French Toast Crunch. After vigorous campaigning from passionate fans the company decided that was a good PR move, and hopefully a revenue generator as well.

With all the hype surrounding the return of this cereal I figured this would be a great opportunity to discover what I missed over eight years ago when the cereal disappeared from the store shelves. For some reason I do have not any fond memories of French Toast Crunch, so it was not particularly exciting for me to hear of its return. So, this could be my second chance to find out whether this is the best thing since Corn Flakes. Or not.


So, what's the draw? For most people the allure of French Toast Crunch is the taste. The cereal claims to be "bursting with cinnamon and syrup taste," and while it is not first one to imitate other breakfast foods (e.g. waffles) the flavor sensation is unique while tapping into familiar tastes. The recipe works, and is enjoyable to eat.



So how do the little french toast slices hold up in milk? Straight out of the bag, this is all about crunch. Hardly authentic french toast, unless you like it dehydrated. But, like most cereals it comes alive in milk, and this is one case where the longer it soaks the better. French toast sopping in syrup is supposed to be soggy, and after 5 to 10 minutes the cereal's association with the real thing is surprisingly strong.

Taste and texture are big aspects of French Toast Crunch, but they're all part of something greater, the overall experience. Again, I believe what has made this such a popular cereal for many people is the fact that this cereal is not only a great imitation of a traditional breakfast favorite, but just plain fun.

So far this cereal is a winner, but now we have to deal with the reality of nutrition. You don't buy this cereal because you're looking for organic, high-fiber grains, naturally packed with antioxidants. Certainly it's not the worst cereal on the market, but it is sugared (30% of weight), low in protein (1g per serving), and comprised mainly of enriched vitamins. But, who really cares. Remember, it's about the experience.

I must admit this was a fun journey back to the past. It is an enjoyable cereal to eat, and I understand the appeal. Having said that it's still not one of my favorite cereals, but if you were a French Toast Crunch lover in the past you won't be disappointed. And, even if this was not on your radar, it's still worth giving it a try. Maybe you'll discover why so many people wanted it back.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Post doubles down with MOM acquisition

As I get back into winter blogging mode, there is one big cereal story in particular that I must comment on. A couple of weeks ago number three cereal maker, Post, demonstrated that it is not only committed to solidifying its number 3 spot in the cereal industry, but is eyeing the future with growth definitely in mind. They have agreed to buy MOM Brands for $1.15 billion, adding the latter's successful bagged cereals and other varieties to its portfolio.

MOM (formerly Malt-O-Meal) has been a cereal disruptor with its focus on knock-off cereals sold in larger sizes, and often at a lower price than the mainstream boxed cereals. It will now be interesting to see how Post leverages the purchase, either through branding changes and/or manufacturing efficiencies.

Consolidation in the cereal industry is inevitable, especially now with the larger companies struggling to find an edge in a tight market.

(Source: Bloomberg)


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Wheaties: Going forward by going back

January is typically a busy month for me, so I've been rather quiet here on and on social media, but with all that's happening in the cereal world, it's time to get back!

Over the years Wheaties has been one of the favorite topics on this blog. The venerable brand has been a showcase of cereal marketing and how it expresses itself in American culture, but for at least a decade has struggled to find itself. There have been numerous attempts to revive the cereal, including the ill-fated Wheaties Fuel, but nothing has seemed to work.

It was not that long ago when Wheaties was known for its representation of high profile professional sports teams and athletes. I'm sure, however, General Mills discovered that after all the licensing fees and costs associated with that, sales just did not warrant continuation of that strategy. Last year, however, we began to see a definite shift more toward high profile athletes outside of the major professional sports leagues, that is, athletes from extreme sports that attracted a much younger audience. Even the box design was updated to reflect greater energy and with a more contemporary feel. And, last summer the company engaged consumers in a way to vote for the next star to grace the cover of Wheaties, from a roster of athletes representing motocross, para-athletics, lacrosse, mixed martial arts, and women's soccer. The winner of the contest was Anthony Pettis, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight champion in 2013, a definite sign that Wheaties is being taken to a whole new generation.

Apart from the new breed of athletes that are starting to appear on the boxes, of equal interest is the new, or rather old, Wheaties design that has appeared with this rebirth of the cereal. Gone is the noisy, colorful redesign attempt of the last year or so. Instead, Wheaties is returning to its roots, with a simple orange and white box, with no extraneous markings to distract from what really matters, the athlete. While millenials do not have memories of the boxes of 30 or 40 years ago, the stark throwback nature of this design is bold and should stand out on the grocery store shelves.

It will be interesting to watch whether this latest strategy is the one that General Mills needs for success with Wheaties.

Now, if they could only update the cereal itself, but that's another story...


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Holiday cereal showdown


 
With Christmas almost here it is a good time to review cereals related to the season. If you are looking for ways to get into the Holiday spirit perhaps having the right cereals around the house might help. And, this year there are four to choose from, all extensions of exiting brands: General Mills' Holiday Sprinkles Cookie Crisp and Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch, Post Sugar Cookie Pebbles, and Quaker Cap'n Crunch Christmas Crunch. The General Mills varieties are brand new this year, whereas the Pebbles cereal is a repeat from last year, and the Cap'n Crunch one is a long-standing favorite.

So, here's a quick review to evaluate the 2014 Holiday cereal offerings, and I will use the same four criteria that are used in my normal reviews: taste, texture, experience, and nutrition.

TASTE

It is obvious that the theme of this years' Holiday cereals is cookies, one of the favorite treats for this time of year. The exception is Cap'n Crunch Christmas Crunch, which is really Crunch Berries reformulated with green and red balls. As far as taste is concerned the Cap'n Crunch just doesn't do anything for me. It's nothing special, way too sweet, and far too dependent on artificial flavors and colors.

The three cookie cereals are much better. Sugar Cookie Pebbles and Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch do have the billed taste, with the Toast Crunch the better of the two. The Holiday Sprinkles Cooke Crisp are somewhat similar, coming much closer to  shortbread cookies.

Overall, the taste winner for me is Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch.

TEXTURE

There are few surprises here as the cereals bring with them the texture of the original brands upon which they are based. If you like a crunchy cereal that holds its own against milk Cap'n Crunch is the clear winner, but perhaps is to harsh right out of the box. Pebbles turn to mush quickly, especially after 5 to 10 minutes, whereas the Toast Crunch and Cookie Crunch find a more ideal middle ground.

In the end, Holiday Sprinkles Cookie Crisp is my favorite for texture, retaining its cookie form and a certain degree of crunch even after time in milk.

EXPERIENCE

These cereals are ultimately about experience. You buy them because they're fun and contribute to the feel of the season. On packaging alone, the Pebbles box by far provides the best breakfast table gazing, with Cap'n Crunch following close behind. But, it's about more than just the packaging. The cereals themselves contribute to the experience, and the Holiday Sprinkles Cookie Crisp is the most authentic because the cereal has the look, feel and taste of cookies. As good as the Toast Crunch and Pebbles are for mimicking sugar cookie taste, their form factor provides little resemblance to what they are representing.

For me the experience winner is a toss-up between the great looking Sugar Cookie Pebbles box and Holiday Sprinkles Cookie Crisp.

NUTRITION

Let's be honest. You don't buy these cereals for their nutritional qualities. All four are relatively high in sugar (Cap'n Crunch the highest at 46% of total weight, Toast Crunch the lowest at 29%), low in protein and fiber, and contain artificial ingredients. Of course, there are fortified vitamins and minerals in an attempt to make up some of the other shortcomings.

It's really hard to declare a nutrition winner here. Perhaps Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch is the lesser of the evils, but does it really matter?

OVERALL

So, is it possible to pick a champion in this year's Holiday cereal showdown? Not really. Ultimately, it will come down to personal appeal and taste, and any of these will liven up your Holiday breakfast times. If I had to make a recommendation it would be to at least try the two new General Mills cereals because they are brand new this year and offer something fresh and interesting. Hopefully, cereal manufacturers will keep innovating in future years, with other holiday flavors and tie-ins. Perhaps someone will even attempt a fruit cake version. OK, maybe scratch that latter idea!

Whichever you choose, may you and your family have a wonderful Holiday season!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Consumers Want: Favorites from the Past

Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote on how General Mills may have misread consumers in their recent push to use non-GMO ingredients. It seems like the company is starting to get it, now going after what consumers really want. Evidence of this comes just a few days ago when they announced the return of a cereal they discontinued eight years ago, French Toast Crunch.

Obviously, in 2006 the executives at General Mills figured that sales were not sufficient for this variant of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch series (which incidentally just celebrated its 30th birthday) so they dumped it. What they did not realize is how passionate some people were for this cereal. The loyal following made their disappointment known, and some even went to great lengths to get some from Canada where it has remained available. With the recent growth of social media the pressure on the company seemed to increase, with even one fan (@FTCtoUSA) creating a special Twitter account to rally fans around the purpose of getting General Mills to bring their favorite cereal back.

It has worked, and in the New Year grocery shelves will be brimming with the red boxes. Fans are ecstatic, a point that General Mills is quick to highlight. Who knows if French Toast Crunch will really make a difference in overall sales for the company, but at this point it is better for them to listen to what consumers really want and to tap into their passions. At minimum they have earned tremendous goodwill and have a powerful story to tell.

I personally do not have any special memories of French Toast Crunch, but I will be trying it out again (and featuring a review here). I do hope, however, that it becomes a trend that other cereal manufacturers will follow. As I've discussed on several occasions before, bringing back nostalgic cereals (not just retro boxes, but actual cereals) would be a great way to re-energize consumers who are tired of many of the current offerings on the market. General Mills has done this previously with their Halloween monster cereals, and I believe that there are many other opportunities out there. For example, Adweek just highlighted five other cereals from the past that appear to generate significant Twitter chatter: Oreo-O's, Waffle Crisp, Nesquik cereal, Pop Tarts Crunch, and the monster cereals.

What cereals would you like to see return, even if for a limited time? (My short list: Freakies, OKs, and Pink Panther Flakes).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Weight Watchers cereal

With Holiday excess in full swing, there are many companies preparing themselves for the annual ritual performed by those who try to counteract the effects of too much egg nog with the discipline of weight loss. In the cereal world, up to this point Kellogg has dominated this market with its broad and diverse Special K line, but recently they have struggled targeting weight management and appear to be adjusting their approach.

But with the next wave of weight loss seekers striving for a solution to their waist lines, MOM Brands is entering this niche market with a line of cereals taking advantage of a licensing agreement with Weight Watchers. This new line-up will likely have credibility for many consumers, and will appeal to those following the Weight Watchers program (each cereal lists its PointsPlus value) and those simply hoping to shed a few extra pounds.

The new cereals will come in five flavors: Frosted Shredded Wheat with Protein, Whole Grain Honey Nut Toasted Oats, Oat Clusters with Cherries & Almonds, Chocolate Frosted Shredded Wheat, and Oat Clusters with Almonds.

Whether or not these cereals will actually help people lose weight is still to be seen, but for MOM this is a smart marketing move. More companies need to establish strategic licensing agreements like this to gain a foothold in consumers' minds. We'll see if they can supplant Special K in this category.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What do consumers want?


As cereal companies struggle to find the product and marketing strategy that will bring success, it often feels like they are throwing Jell-O at the wall to see what sticks: New products, new flavors and varieties, re-designed packaging, niche targeting, etc. Unfortunately, these seldom bring breakthroughs.

At the beginning of this year General Mills thought that non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients in Cheerios and Grape Nuts would attract consumers who had to choose between many different brands (including generic knock-offs) in the grocery store aisle. Naturally they would pick the non-GMO cereals and see General Mills as a trusted, safe brand. Right? Not so quick.

According to an AP report not long after the change, there is no evidence that sales of General Mills' GMO-free cereals have increased. While it could be argued that it is the right thing to do, and certainly many consumer advocates have praised the decision, the bottom line is that most people simply do not care. A couple of months ago, General Mills' shareholders reinforced this view by casting a vote 98% against a proposal to remove all GMO's from the company's products.

The point is that making a move like this is not the answer to the downturn in cereal sales. Consumers are not easily impressed with all these marketing maneuvers. For the small minority that are committed to eating non-GMO foods Cheerios might now be an option, but the reality is these individuals are likely buying other cereals from a brand with a stronger, more consistent health focus. Perhaps General Mills is already understanding this, as is reflected in their recent purchase of Annie's.

Again, it's innovation that is going to turn around the cereal industry. Hopefully this recent experiment at General Mills will reinforce the fact that grasping at straws rarely works.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Killer concept in London

In my last post I highlighted how mymuesli is creatively reinventing cereal in Germany. But, this is not the only European company taking cereal to a new level. This time we go across the pond to London where two brothers (and identical twins!) are preparing to open a cereal restaurant called Cereal Killer Café. Sure cereal restaurants are not new - I've been talking about them here for over eight years - but this goes beyond the much more limited attempts in the U.S.

Alan and Gary Keery have a grand, passionate vision for their cereal amusement park. Claiming to be "obsessed with everything cereal" they are going all out, offering over 100 different kinds of cereals from numerous countries. And to make it even more interesting there will be 12 varieties of milk and 20 different toppings. But, this is more than about cereal as a food. For true breakfast enthusiasts they are creating a nostalgic café  where hundreds of pieces of cereal memorabilia from the 80s and 90s are displayed. Here you will not only be able to get a great bowl of cereal to consume, but you can immerse yourself fully into an experience that celebrates cereal culture.

This will be a fun venture to watch, and it may provide a template for what cereal restaurants should be like. Cereal Killer Café may not be easily scalable, but it offers far more excitement than the much simpler model adopted by early innovators like Cereality. In the home of breakfast cereal, the U.S., there is no reason that something like this could not be successful.

(Special thanks to several Breakfast Bowl followers who brought this to my attention: Lynda, Luke and Jerry!)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Is the future of cereal in Germany?

A theme that has come up regularly in the last couple of years, both here and in the larger media, is of the troubles facing the cereal industry. You've heard it: Americans are turning away from cereal and manufacturers are floundering trying to figure out what to do.

While there are exceptions to the doom and gloom, we may want to look to Europe to see an example of fresh, creative thinking that may provide some ideas as to how the North American cereal industry could reinvent itself. Specifically, I am thinking of a seven year-old German company that has been thinking outside the box, both literally and figuratively, and creating a whole new market for cereal.

I first came across mymuesli in 2007 shortly after its launch, and at that time I asked whether it was the "cereal of the future?" They were offering custom-made cereals that could be ordered online and packaged in canisters. Their marketing was slick and obviously the product must be equally impressive because they have grown and are now expanding through 15 modern, trendy stores across Germany and Austria, plus their cereals are now available in over 100 cafes and stores.

Of course, American ingenuity was quick to copy. If it would work for mymuesli, it should work in the cereal center of the world, the U.S. Right? Not so quickly. Some tried, like [me]&Goji and MixMyGranola, but both eventually failed. More recently we've seen MixMyOwn enter the market, but it is hard to gauge their success.

While American attempts at customized cereal have been lackluster, this does not mean it cannot work here. I strongly believe that with the right business model this could be one of the ways in which cereal could have new life in the future.

First, let's learn from what makes mymuesli successful. Their success is not simply because they setup a website and sold personalized mixes. Certainly that was novel at the time, but innovation and creativity remain hallmarks of their work. Yes, they continue to give people the opportunity to customize their own recipes, but they are putting much more emphasis on unique pre-made formulas(like a current season's paprika-pumpkin granola and an autumn muesli, and unusual varieties like a cereal for those following a paleo-diet) in specially-designed canisters,  convenient "mymuesli2go" portions, and super-creative ideas like a cereal advent calendar. They have created a premium brand that goes way beyond the mass-marketed cereals found in supermarkets. And, now with their boutique stores they have accentuated the brand even further among the discriminating tastes of Europeans.

It is important, of course, to point out that the place of cereal in continental European society is much different than in North America. They do not have a history of eating cereal for breakfast, and although cereal consumption is increasing it is nowhere close to the U.S., even with recent declines. This definitely gives mymuesli an opportunity to create a new market for itself. It is also important to understand how muesli fits into all of this. Muesli is very European, and in some places like Switzerland is a regular part of their diet, but more in the evening than at breakfast. Muesli is a wholesome cereal built around whole foods, unlike the highly processed cereals of North American laden with sugar, sweeteners, and artificial colors and flavors.

Despite the differences, I still contend that while American entrepreneurs should not simply copy mymuesli, there are numerous things to learn that could not only lead to success, but could ultimately reinvent the cereal industry on this continent. In simple format, here are some key insights that may be transferable to a North American attempt of something this bold and innovative:

1. Go after the high-end. Don't bother trying to compete with the mass-market cereals. There are enough people out there looking for something nutritious, fresh and different.
2. Don't just rely on an Internet store. Cereal needs to be an experience. Boutique stores in upscale shopping areas in larger cities that also offered a cereal bar experience (remember the cereal restaurant craze of few years ago?) could be a hit if executed well.
3. Customization is more than giving people the ability to create their own. Use that small-scale customizing ability to come up with a whole range of unique formulas that incite creativity and viral conversations.
4. Get beyond granola, and possibly even muesli. Granola is passé, and muesli (while an opportunity for growth) is not understood in North America. There is room to work with ingredients and forms familiar to us, but presented in exciting new ways.
5. Success in the U.S. is going to require adequate capitalization. A small start-up without adequate funding may not be able to get the traction to breakthrough in this highly competitive climate.

In my opinion, mymuesli is possibly the most exciting cereal company in the industry today. Period. I know that during my next trip to Germany I will be checking them out personally. I hope that cereal entrepreneurs and companies will take them more seriously, and take another look at this amazing company.