How Cheerios works to stay relevant across generations

In the food industry, having high familiarity among consumers brings the weighty task of making products that fulfill their range of desires. For General Mills, keeping its 82-year old Cheerios brand relevant is a balancing act of taste and flavor.

Cheerios is the best-selling cereal in America, according to Zippia data, with annual sales of over $435 million. Honey Nut Cheerios, a similar brand, is the third. Roughly one in every nine bowls of cereal in the U.S. is Cheerios, said Ricardo Fernandez, president of General Mills’ U.S. cereal division, in an interview with Food Dive.

There are roughly 15 varieties of Cheerios at any given moment — from seasonal offerings like Pumpkin Spice to new additions like Frosted Lemon. The product’s status as a leading cereal brand, with a range of consumers looking for different things, informs how the company approaches new products.

“It’s a brand that appeals to all life stages of consumers,” Fernandez said. “Everything from the first finger-food… what you give your toddler for dexterity, and something they can healthily, safely eat, all the way to when you are an aging adult worried about heart health.”

When developing a new product, the Cheerios team works to identify gaps in the cereal space, aiming to fulfill needs that its products and those of competitors are not providing. Fernandez said it takes into account leading trends among consumers of all ages.

“That’s an iterative process back and forth with consumers to try to understand that, and we develop concepts that then get vetted to try to identify places where we think a brand like Cheerios can play,” Fernandez said.

Incorporating better-for-you elements has shaped the Cheerios strategy for years, mainly with its claims to improve heart health. But these claims are not without critique. In 2009, the FDA warned that claims the product is “clinically proven to help lower cholesterol” constituted violations of federal law, as the cereal is not classified as a drug.

As people continue to prioritize products with added health benefits, General Mills has continued to focus on specific better-for-you elements for the cereal brand. Last month, it announced that several of its biggest products, including Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, are now fortified with double the amount of Vitamin D — 20% of the recommended daily amount. This change happened after the FDA allowed higher concentrations of the nutrient in cereals earlier this year.

Cheerios Oat Crunch cereal, which debuted earlier this year.

Courtesy of General Mills


All about the oats

One thing consumers can agree on is that there is no shortage of oats in current CPG products.

Products containing the protein have exploded in popularity in recent years — from SunOpta’s cereal made with upcycled oat milk byproduct to oat-based Reese’s cups and Hershey’s bars. The size of the oats market is projected to reach $6.10 billion by 2028, according to Imarc.

The Cheerios team believes greater consumer interest confirms the timelessness of its product, as oats are the main ingredients.

Fernandez said the brand’s ties to oats can be traced back to the cereal’s introduction, as it was originally called “Cheerioats” before being changed to Cheerios in 1945, after a copyright claim to “oats” branding by Quaker Oats.

The protein is the star of General Mills’ latest line of Cheerios products, Oat Crunch, which debuted earlier this year in flavors such as Oats N’ Honey and Almond. The brand touts its better-for-you elements. Each serving contains 30 grams of whole grain and 4 grams of fiber.

Oat Crunch Cheerios succeeded at something the brand has been working toward in various iterations over the last 15 years, Fernandez said. It is a cereal with a crunchier texture that also provides satiety. He said the product’s design, with oats stuck to the outside of the Cheerio, and flavors make it appealing to a range of consumers.

Cheerios believes the unique familiarity of its flavors also sets it apart in the cereal space. Competitors that try to imitate the taste of Cheerios with oat-based flavors miss the mark, Fernandez said, citing internal consumer testing.

“Everything from the process of how we grow the oats, to how we process them from a raw oat into oat flour and toast them perfectly,” Fernandez said, “all the way to how we make them in our plants are all proprietary.”

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