Monday, June 22, 2015

General Mills is getting "real"

For regular followers of this blog I apologize for the recent hiatus in postings. Life has been very full! But, here's a story to get back into the bowl:

Breakfast cereals really began to stand out for their culinary creativeness, not only because of marketing, but due to chemistry. Back in the 1950's and 60's as a society we were introduced to a myriad of innovations from laboratories that concocted a wide range of new experiences and solutions for a everything from cleaning products to food. Food chemistry enabled manufacturers to try things in their recipes that were never before possible. Preservatives enabled food to last longer on the shelves. New colors and flavors gave rise to food with powerful taste and appearance. We believed that life was not only better with chemicals, but that perhaps someday chemistry would solve all of our problems, possibly even world hunger.

A lot has changed since then. As consumers became more health conscious and suspicious of these Franken-foods there was a growing move back to more natural, whole foods and away from things artificial. We see this with breakfast cereal. Whereas a few decades ago we were enamored with out of this world cereals, today, as evidenced by work of startups, the trend is definitely toward health. Chemicals are out. Low-processed, high fiber, natural (and even exotic) grains are in.

It's no secret that the cereal industry is struggling, and the big companies are especially trying to figure out to reverse the overall trend and their own sales. Innovation, a frequent theme in this blog, is the key.

Today we learn that General Mills is taking a bold step (at least for one of the big three cereal manufacturers), and has announced that they will be eliminating artificial flavors and colors (or more accurately "colors from artificial sources") "over the next two or three years". They clearly see the handwriting on the wall and know that most consumers want this. Even if 60% of their cereals already meet this standard, having others that still contain these artificial ingredients tarnishes the brand. This is not, however, the first time the company has made this type of across the board recipe change. Several years they committed to including "Whole Grains" in all their cereals.

In many ways this is a significant move that cannot but help their brand, and General Mills seem to be doing all they can to send these kinds of messages (even if polarizing), such as when they appealed to the LGBT community.

Despite all of this it is important to remember that removing artificial colors and flavors does not mean that General Mills has suddenly become an uber-health food brand. It's a welcome tweak, but does not commit to removing any other artificial ingredients, nor does it make some of the suspect highly-sugared cereals any more nutritious.

But, it is a sign that cereal companies are getting more real. And, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kellogg looking to Origins

In the last few years much attention has been given to the decline in breakfast cereal sales, a point highlighted on this blog from time to time (but not nearly in keeping with the increasing hype this story is getting across the general media). The big companies are especially feeling the pressure, with much of the recent attention given to Kellogg and their almost 5% drop in breakfast food sales.

Kellogg and the others know that they cannot rely just on the same old formulas and strategies that worked in the past. Innovation is needed, but unfortunately is often coming from other players in the industry. With the announcement of their dismal financial results last month big K also revealed that their next attempt to get back on the growth curve is to launch mid-year a new cereal brand called Origins. The focus of this brand will be wellness and "real food prepared simply". The cereals, granolas and mueslis will have no preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, and will be packed with whole grains and fibers.

Of course, at first glance this hardly sounds new. Healthy cereals? Aren't there tons of them in the market? Yes, but there is a noteworthy difference here. Most of the cereals claiming to be natural and super healthy are under the names of smaller brands, even though two of them (Kashi and Bear Naked) are owned by Kellogg itself. This new line will prominently indicate that it is from Kellogg, and that could be the start of a deliberate campaign to change consumers' perceptions about what Kellogg stands for. If these cereals take off, the company could become known as a brand to trust, not just one of the mass-marketed cereal companies delivering the typical fare.

This could be the last real chance for Kellogg to get it right. We will have to see how consumers respond to a return the company's Origins.

(Source: BakeryandSnacks.com)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Cereal podcasts

Are you looking for more cereal fun? Perhaps listening to a cereal podcast is what you need.

Last fall podcasting got a major shot in the arm with the very successful Serial podcast that came from WBEZ in Chicago and the creators of This American Life radio show. Podcasting technology has been fairly geeky up to this point, but Serial along with the ubiquity of smartphones has generated a whole new interest in this audio media.

Recognizing the opportunity for a play on words, several creative individuals have initiated their own spin-offs of Serial, utilizing the homophone, cereal. At least two podcasts have launched, and a very brief spoof. One Cereal Podcast, even featuring a knock-off logo from Serial, seemed to fizzle after only four episodes. But, the bowl looks much fuller for Cereal from the Heritage Radio Network, which is now on their fifth episode and provides entertaining shows bantering about different cereals and cereal news.

Is podcasting the best vehicle for pondering the wonder of cereals? There are so many visual and sensory dimensions to cereal that would be greatly enhanced if brought to video. Perhaps someone will do the same with regular video episodes on YouTube, like was done with the now defunct Cereal Wednesday.

In any case, if you can't get enough cereal in your life, here's an enjoyable way to get more during your commute, while preparing dinner, walking the dog, etc.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Porridge cafe

Cereal restaurants are not new, but the start of the innovative Cereal Killer Café in London last fall may have launched a resurgence of this format, at least outside the U.S. There are reports of other cereal restaurants opening in the U.K., and now in other places like Australia. And, one that has caught my attention is the Porridge Café, also in London.

Not another copycat cereal restaurant Porridge Café focuses on cooked cereals, the ultimate comfort food, and has created a creative gourmet menu that extends well beyond breakfast.

I have noted on several occasions in recent years a growing trend toward hot cereals. Perhaps a unique concept like Porridge Café might be on to something that could fuel this growth.

We'll be watching.

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).