Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work at General Mills. Working with leading and trusted brands like Cheerios, Wheaties, and Betty Crocker was an eye-opener and powerful learning experience.
May 1 is the anniversary of the original launch of Cheerios in 1941. In honor of Cheerio’s 76th anniversary, here are three reflections from my time in Minneapolis working at General Mills.
The Inheritance: Sometimes you build a brand, but sometimes you inherit one. Thousands of people worked for 50 years on the Cheerios “brand” long before I got there. And thousands more will continue to do so for years to come.
A great rule of thumb when working with an established brand can be borrowed from medicine – first, do no harm. Each of us in communications would like to loan our expertise to the brand, but first we have to understand how the brand has been developed. While at General Mills, I spent time in the archives looking at advertising through the years and came to understand how important Trust was to the brand. I heard repeatedly from brand stewards that Cheerios is often a baby’s first food, an honor which expresses the profound trust parents placed in the product. In evaluating my inheritance, I learned to ensure that our PR work for the brand never broke that sacred trust with consumers.
The Pivot – Heart Healthy Message: Today, its common place to see a heart on the front of a Cheerios box. During my time in the 1990s, that was not the case. A quick look back at sales trends showed that when Cheerios focused on a health messages, sales grew. To that end, we commissioned research to show that whole grain oats, as part of a healthy diet, reduced cholesterol.
You can imagine that when the data came back positive, it became core to the brand’s PR message. Our team was responsible for releasing the new transformational data, ensuring the data’s integrity, and applying a new layer of messaging “heart healthy” to the long-time message of “trust.” The lesson we applied was that if you were going to pivot a key message, it needed to be grounded in research and be rock solid.
The Stretch: During my time at General Mills, the company chose to be an Olympic Sponsor. One of the ways they chose to leverage it was to introduce a new cereal – Team USA Cheerios – with gold, silver, and bronze O’s. The brand also chose to sponsor a NASCAR team and feature a now ubiquitous bright yellow Cheerios car on racetracks across the country.
Our job was to communicate this “stretching”, the extension of the brand to new arenas, and leverage the Olympic and NASCAR sponsorship without harming the overall brand. To do so, we focused on local market news outreach that leveraged athletes, our driver, our brand, and winning performances to build upon Cheerio’s healthy image. We also partnered with the nutrition team to ensure that the health benefits and health message was woven in to the fabric of our messaging. In the end, our PR efforts leveraged Olympians and our NASCAR driver to drive news coverage featuring the brand and our key messages.