If Toucan Sam heard what Malt-O-Meal is up to, it would throw him for a loop. It would make the Honey Nut Cheerios bee buzzing mad.

The Minneapolis-based company has quietly notched impressive gains in the otherwise lumbering cold cereal market by mastering the knockoff. Its Tootie Fruities bear a striking resemblance to Froot Loops. As for its Honey Nut Scooters -- where have we seen that classic oat ring before?

Malt-O-Meal, recently rechristened MOM Brands, has built a lucrative cold cereal niche by delivering more product for the money than similar cereals made by industry titans General Mills and Kellogg.

"Once people try us, we have a very loyal group of consumers," said Chris Neugent, MOM Brands' chief executive.

It's a growing group. Between 2001 and 2011, Malt-O-Meal's annual sales climbed from $300 million to about $750 million. In 2009, it opened a cereal factory in North Carolina, a $275 million project. And over the past decade, it has spent $100 million boosting production capacity and efficiency at a big cereal plant in Northfield.

Not bad for a firm associated for decades with just one product, the hot wheat concoction known as Malt-O-Meal.

The 93-year-old company, owned by descendants of its founder, still makes its namesake product. But hot cereal comprises only about 10 percent of total sales, and most of that comes from Better Oats, a fast-growing instant oatmeal line.

Several newer brands like Better Oats and Mom's Best Naturals -- cold cereals made with natural ingredients -- led the company in February to change its corporate name from Malt-O-Meal to MOM Brands.

The rebranding also reflects a change in the company's strategy. A decade ago, half of its sales came from private-label cereal, products carrying the brands of supermarket chains. Today, that's down to 20 percent.

The core business is Malt-O-Meal branded cold cereal -- Tootie Fruities, Marshmallow Mateys and the like -- that took off in the 1980s.

Mature industry

Cold cereal is a huge business, generating about $9 billion in U.S. sales in 2011, according to Mintel International. But it's a mature, slow-growing business. And Golden Valley-based General Mills and Michigan-based Kellogg together capture more than 60 percent of the market.

Malt-O-Meal has been gaining ground, though, particularly on the No. 3 and 4 players, Post and PepsiCo's Quaker division.

Its share of the U.S. cold cereal business as measured in pounds jumped from 3.1 percent in 2001 to 9.6 percent last year, fourth among major cereal makers and just a bit behind Post, according to Nielsen Co. data provided by MOM Brands.

Consumers usually pay about 20 to 25 percent less for a pound of Malt-O-Meal branded cereal than they do for a pound of its rivals' products, Neugent said.

Neugent, Malt-O-Meal's CEO since 2008, makes no excuses for the knockoff approach. "We're not the first ones to come in and have similar products."

The strategy doesn't always sit well with its competitors, though. "We're not on their Christmas card list, I will say that," Neugent said.

It's not surprising the cereal colossi get irked. "You can make the argument that Malt-O-Meal is free-riding off the advertising" of General Mills and Kellogg, said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

A minuscule ad budget

While heavy advertising greases cereal sales for the heavyweights -- Toucan Sam has been an animated celebrity since the 1960s -- Malt-O-Meal's ad budget can be measured in spoonfuls, not bowls. Minimal marketing expenses are critical to maintaining its lower prices.

Kellogg's and General Mills spend up to 8 percent of their total cereal sales on advertising, said Rick Shea, owner of Shea Marketing, a Chanhassen-based consultancy.

Malt-O-Meal spends less than 1 percent, said Shea, who was the company's chief marketing officer from 2004 through to 2006. Minuscule would be the best word to describe Malt-O-Meal's ad spending the past two years as measured by advertising tracker Kantar Media.

"I would love to advertise our products, but if I did, I'd have to raise our prices," said Neugent, who is no stranger to heavy-duty food marketing. Before arriving at Malt-O-Meal in 2001, the Texas native worked at PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division and was for a time its Doritos brand manager.

At MOM Brands, Neugent runs "a very lean organization," Shea said. "Its strength is on the manufacturing side, not the sales and marketing side."

MOM Brands' product quality is on par with its competitors', Shea said. And its cereal factories are highly efficient.

The company's manufacturing prowess is on display in Northfield, home to the largest of its three cold cereal plants and about 800 of its 1,100 Minnesota employees. Malt-O-Meal is Northfield's largest employer along with St. Olaf College. Its main plant runs 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Workers at the plant are not all that easy to spot, though, given the pervasive automation. On a normal shift, four employees oversee the production line for Frosted Mini Spooners, Malt-O-Meal's biggest seller and a product akin to Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats.

The air smells toasty, earthy and a bit sweet, as computerized machines -- including a football field-sized oven -- each day transform 120,000 pounds of winter wheat into enough Mini Spooners to fill about 120,000 bags and boxes.

On the packaging line, one robot stuffs freshly filled bags of Mini Spooners into boxes for shipping; another corrals multiple boxes into pallet-sized units.

The bulk of Malt-O-Meal's cold cereal is packaged in bags, not boxes, because it's less expensive that way. Bags weigh about 75 percent less than boxes. And boxes, since they contain more wasted space than bags, "don't pack out as well'" -- i.e. they require more room in trucks, Neugent said.

The Northfield cold cereal plant is known as the Campbell Mill, named after John Campbell, the Owatonna grain miller who created Malt-O-Meal and ran the firm for decades. Neugent is only the company's fourth chief executive, the second outside of the founder's family.

Campbell staked out Northfield as his production base in the 1920s. The city's historic Ames Mill -- built in 1869 -- still churns out classic Malt-O-Meal, though the cereal makes up only a couple of percentage points of MOM Brands' sales.

"Hot wheat is not growing," Neugent said. Hot oats are, though, prompting the company in 2010 to launch Better Oats, a premium oatmeal at a value price -- no knockoffs here. Better Oats has carved out a 4 percent share, in dollar sales, of the Quaker-dominated hot instant cereal market.

To market Better Oats, Malt-O-Meal took to social media, a typically pennywise move.

It scooped up PepsiCo's "Choice of a New Generation" slogan -- big in the 1980s -- after the soft drink giant let its trademark lapse. MOM Brands adapted "Choice of a New Generation" to Better Oats, hiring the crowdsourcing ad agency Poptent for a Web video.

Poptent got about 100 submissions from its network of video producers, and MOM Brands paid the winner $7,500. The video, featuring a guy dancing in his kitchen and singing an ode to Better Oats, was posted on YouTube and Better Oats' Facebook page and its own dedicated website.

There was no big multimedia ad splash, as is common with new cereals. "We do everything differently," Neugent said. "Frankly we have to. We're the little guy in the category."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003