Marketing Trends

Look at Me When I’m Selling to You: Lessons from Cereal Marketing

Cereal brands create strong loyalty from consumers with a recipe that combines easily recognizable mascots, omnipresent ads across channels, a whole lot of sugar, and convenience.

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Oct 17, 2022
Cereal Boxes

Look at Me When I’m Selling to You: Lessons from Cereal Marketing

Tony the Tiger; Snap, Crackle & Pop; Toucan Sam; and Count Chocula are among the many indelible characters Americans instantly recognize whenever they appear. With slogans like “They're greeeeat!” and “Follow your nose, it always knows!” that roll off our tongues at a moment’s notice, marketing has made cereal  a staple of breakfast in the U.S. But it wasn’t always. It took a pair of brothers – John Harvey Kellogg, a deeply religious doctor, and Will Kellogg, an entrepreneur; stiff competition (C.W. Post, among others); a healthy dose of sugar (which Dr. Kellogg opposed); and a whole lot of marketing.

As The Atlantic reported in its story “Why Cereal Has Such Aggressive Marketing”:

“Advertising was the key to the cereal business. Whether they involved cartoon characters or wacky health claims, the important thing was to establish a brand for each cereal. ‘The sunshine that makes a business plant grow,’ C.W. Post said, as he embarked on a career that would earn him a net worth (in 2016 dollars) of $800 million, ‘is advertising.’”

Cereal brands have definitely succeeded in that regard! Take a moment and write down as many cereal brands as you can. How many did you end up with? Ten? Fifteen? More? Here’s our list: 

  1. Frosted Flakes
  2. Corn Flakes
  3. Raisin Bran
  4. Froot Loops
  5. Cap n’ Crunch
  6. Lucky Charms
  7. Wheaties
  8. Grape Nuts
  9. Count Chocula
  10. Fruity Pebbles
  11. Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  12. Reeses’ Peanut Butter Puffs
  13. Cheerios
  14. Honey Nut Cheerios
  15. Rice Krispies
  16. Special K
  17. Trix

Given some time to think about it, we likely could have come up with a bunch more. What does this tell us? Cereal takes up a lot of real estate in our brains!

Cereal brands create strong loyalty from consumers with a recipe that combines easily recognizable mascots, omnipresent ads across channels, a whole lot of sugar, and convenience.  Before you know it, cereal has worked its way into our minds, hearts, bellies and wallets for the long haul. That’s because marketing to consumers starts when we’re kids and persists throughout our lifetime..

What’s in a Look?

A simple look can convey many things: love, worry, happiness, and most importantly for cereal marketers, trust.

Forbes reported on a Cornell University and Yale University study, “Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?,” that found cereals marketed to children specifically tilted their “spokes-characters” eyes downward nearly 10 degrees to ensure they met the gaze of children in the grocery aisles. Location on the shelf also played a role in attracting children, with the cereals meant for them placed on lower shelves, where they were in direct line of sight.

As Forbes tells it: 

“The second part of the study, which looked at brand trust and connection, was even more telling. The team showed two different versions of the Trix Rabbit to people: One version made eye contact, and another version looked downward. The participants' trust in the brand was 16% higher, and their feelings of connectivity to the brand 28% higher, when the rabbit appeared to make eye contact with them. The participants also said they actually liked the cereal better, in comparison to another type, when the rabbit looked right at them.”

Courtesy Cornell Food & Brand Lab

The message of that look is clear. “Silly rabbit, Trix ARE for kids!” And that kid is right here in the grocery store cereal aisle.

It’s All Fun and Games

But the marketing doesn’t start and end in the cereal aisle. Commercials air regularly during children’s programming; their favorite shows often get their own cereals, their favorite cereals sometimes get their own toy lines, and there are cereal brand websites aplenty with games and content for kids that are engaging, thinly veiled ads.

A study published in the Journal of Health Communication, “Marketing Sugary Cereals to Children in the Digital Age: A Content Analysis of 17 Child-Targeted Websites,” documents just how thinly-veiled those ads are. Covering the study, Alan Morantz noted the following findings:

  • More than 80 percent of the sites featured games, the majority of which were advergames that carried product branding. Almost all advergames went beyond product display to using cereal as more than food, such as incorporating cereal into the game as a piece of equipment.  
  • Ten percent of web pages had videos, including 10 TV commercials and 35 brand-saturated webisodes (animated cereals that typically depicted branded spokes-characters).  
  • Twenty-four percent carried online cross-promotions.  
  • Fifty-three percent included invitations to share the online experience with the child’s friends (the Frosted Mini-Wheats’ website included a picture of a cell phone, giving it the appearance of a text message, and asked the child to input his or her own, and friend’s, name and email address). 
  • Sites with the most sophisticated engagement techniques were the most heavily visited. Visits to the immersive virtual worlds of and (neither is still active) were long lasting, averaging more than 20 minutes for children two to 17 years old.

With that level of marketing inundation from cereal brands starting at such a young age, it’s no wonder consumers have such a strong connection to their cereal. 

And let’s be honest, these home-made Pebbles Confetti Poppers look like a … blast.  

Takeaways (good and bad) for marketers

Marketers in other arenas can learn a lot from cereal brands on engaging consumers and earning their loyalty, including:

  • Create a brand that your audience can connect with: mascots, logos, fonts, images, packaging, etc., should all provide insight into the brand and product in a clear and compelling manner.
  • Be omnipresent: Go where your consumers are and provide them with compelling content. Explore all avenues, including paid search, social, OTA, OTT, print, the checkout counter, etc. Don’t rule it out until you’ve tried it.
  • Product placement matters: Where your product lands in the aisle or online marketplace matters. Fight for the prime real estate that you know best reaches your consumers.
  • Get creative for engagement: Consider websites and apps with interactive content that connects you with your audience. Games, augmented reality, tutorials, videos, etc., can all be effective in engaging consumers.

Okay, yeah, we hear you thinking it, and you’re right:

  • Ask not just if you can, but if you should: Ethical marketing practices are critical. Should cereal brands employ these marketing techniques with children? Probably not. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. 

Need help taking these lessons from the cereal industry and applying them to your own marketing strategies? Dept. 11 can help you develop the right team and techniques for reaching and engaging your audience. Contact us today.