Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The codfish lays ten thousand eggs,
The homely hen lays one;
The codfish never cackles
To tell you when she’s done;
And so we scorn the codfish,
While the humble hen we prize.
Which only goes to show you
That it pays to advertise.
That one it got right. And in a big way. And the ameliorating news broke just as the bad news hit the papers. I’m referring to General Mills. Two weeks ago I described the problems it was having with the Food and Drug Administration because of its advertising the medicinal qualities of Cheerios. It told consumers that those who faithfully ate Cheerios for 6 weeks would lower their cholesterol by 4 per cent. The FDA said such a claim moved Cheerios from the cereal category to the drug category and it should either go through the process for a new drug application or discontinue the advertising. It’s too soon to know how that controversy will get resolved. The FDA won’t be getting involved in General Mills’s exciting newest product, however. It’s a Wheaties offspring that is designed to appeal exclusively to men. It comes with the tantalizing name “Wheaties Fuel”.
Wheaties has long been associated with athletes who were winners rather than the other kind. It was known as the “Breakfast of Champions” and boxes would feature pictures of such sports heroes as Joe Dimaggio swinging a bat and saying “I can’t sock ‘em out on a skimpy breakfast” implicitly suggesting the antidote to “skimpy breakfast” was a bowl of Wheaties. (That particular box also had a small picture of a girl in a bathing suit saying “tops with me.” From the size of the picture it’s impossible to know if the bather was famous or simply pretty.)
Wheaties did not start out as a champion. According to a report in the New York Times, it had something of a wimpy beginning. It was “invented accidentally when a health clinician in Minneapolis who was simmering bran gruel for intestinally distressed patients spilled it onto a hot stove and it dried into flakes. . . .” Recognizing what a good thing it had, General Mills’s predecessor company began marketing the fortuitously dried gruel as a cereal. Ten years later its new proprietor, General Mills, baptized the boxes in which it came “Breakfast of Champions”. The first athlete whose image was used was Lou Gehrig. The faces of dozens of other well-known athletes have graced the boxes over the years. General Mills hoped that consumers would believe that by consuming Wheaties they, too, would become champions. Looking at sales figures, General Mills has now realized that the bloom is off the rose.
According to the New York Times story, sales have been dropping. In the last year alone, Wheaties’ sales have dropped roughly 14 per cent, hardly the performance expected of champions. And the decline is not simply fortuitous. General Mills apparently thinks that Wheaties is a bit effeminate for today’s male. Although 60 per cent of Wheaties’ eaters are said to be men, Amy Martin, a member of the advertising group that handles Wheaties’ account, told the Times reporter that “females have historically more often been the purchasers of cereal” and even when the men are doing the shopping, it’s long been assumed they buy what their wives or girlfriends tell them to buy.” Ms. Martin further observed that men (without I should say, losing any of their masculinity) “are taking over a lot more of the shopping occasions. And as that happens, men are not just following a list but are much more focused on making decisions themselves.” David Clark, a marketing manager at General Mills offers another reason why Wheaties is changing. “Nobody in this enormous category (cereal eaters) is speaking to men. Men don’t use their wives’ razors or deodorants; why would they be eating their cereal.” (It is important to note that this observation only applies to cereals. A man eating in a restaurant should not be dissuaded from ordering a drink or a meal simply because most of the women at his table are ordering the same thing. Cereals are, as lawyers like to say, sui generis.)
It is not simply the advertising that is going to accompany the new product that is changing. There is going to be a substantive change as well.
Wheaties includes folic acid, an ingredient that everyone knows is more important for women than for men. The new product is going to add Vitamin E, something believed by some to be lacking in men’s diets. The final product is not going to be the result of a few tasters at General Mills. Although famous athletes have helped in the design of the product, the company sought volunteers from “everyday athletes” whom it solicited in the magazine Men’s Health. The volunteers will select the best formulation of Wheaties Fuel and that will replace the Breakfast of Champions on your grocery shelves.
There is only one thing that is more amazing than I am sure the new product will be. That is all who are associated with the new product from developer to promoter take themselves seriously. General Mills can only hope that the General Public, especially the part that comprises men, will follow suit.