Wheaties adds Fuel to the fire of cereal competition

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2010 - 10:21 PM

"Son of Wheaties" has brooding look and a new taste with men in mind.

The assignment from General Mills was both simple and daunting: Create a new look for a new type of Wheaties breakfast cereal.

The result, conceived by the Minneapolis agency Boom Island, could hardly be more striking.

The trademark Wheaties orange was replaced with a stark black background with elite athletes staring intently from the box cover. No smiles. Just darkly shaded mug shots.

The cereal's name became Wheaties Fuel, as in providing fuel to be a winner.

The message to consumers was that this is a serious product for those who like to compete, in sports or at work. The target audience: men.

It was a prestigious assignment for Boom Island, a small shop that specializes in branding and packaging design for retail products, and a bit of a risk for General Mills Inc., which failed with three previous variations of its iconic 86-year-old breakfast staple.

"This was two years in the making," said Dan Stangler , the Wheaties marketing manager. "We didn't want to just rebrand Wheaties. We wanted to add a new member to the Wheaties team."

Boom Island went to work on the project late last winter after a whirlwind two-week courtship in which the 10-person agency had to convince General Mills that it had the creative depth and experience to handle the development of the Fuel brand.

The name Fuel was agreed on early. Then Boom Island went to work designing the package so that it had a dramatic new look while retaining some familiar Wheaties elements, including the traditional orange Wheaties logo along with Wheaties' long-standing slogan, "The Breakfast of Champions."

"We had to make sure Wheaties and Fuel could exist side by side [on the grocery shelf], said Jean Wright, vice president of client services for Boom Island. "General Mills referred to this as 'the son of Wheaties.' We didn't want to alienate the Wheaties loyalist."

Fuel's brand is built around five top athletes, but not all of them household names: Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics, Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, champion triathlete Hunter Kemper and gold medal-winning decathlete Bryan Clay.

Roll out with a video

General Mills put the athletes to good use with an Internet video series to help introduce Fuel.

Sports nutritionist John Ivy was also part of the rollout of the new product. In six short videos on the Wheaties website, Ivy visited with each of the athletes in gyms, weight rooms and football fields to talk about nutrition and training. The Web series ends with the athletes traveling to General Mills' Golden Valley headquarters for a taste test and a visit to the plant where Fuel will be produced.

"We looked to the past to guide our future," said Stangler, noting that each of the five selected athletes had previously been on the front of the orange Wheaties box and each was a champion in his particular sport.

The challenge for Boom Island, which has done branding work for Target and Best Buy, was to incorporate those athletes into the packaging and branding elements of the product.

"We said to ourselves: What would Wheaties look like today if it was designed by champions for champions?" said creative director Jim Jackson. "We had A-list celebrities, and we had to showcase them in a way that grabbed your attention. We wanted to show the intensity in their faces."

Jackson said the black box and contrasting orange highlights provided "vibration."

"It's more than a logo," he said. "It's an identity, an accent. When you think Wheaties Fuel, you think black."

Three varieties of the new Wheaties were taste-tested by the athletes and by volunteers primarily from Men's Health magazine. The winning formula was a whole-grain cereal with more fiber, sugar and Vitamin E than the all-wheat flake in Wheaties. The Vitamin E element was added for the male consumer, while folic acid, which men tend to get elsewhere in their diet, was removed. Fuel also is slightly sweeter with a dash of cinnamon and honey.

"Men don't feel the same attraction to cereal that women do, like Special K which has a huge [female] following," said Marcia Mogelonsky, a food and drink analyst for Mintel International Group, a consumer research firm in Chicago. "Men eat cereal as a fallback, not because of loyalty. This move by General Mills is a pure marketing attempt."

Boxes of Wheaties Fuel and regular Wheaties cost the same, according to prices at a Twin Cities grocery chain. The Fuel box, with its clustered content, contains 1.5 ounces more cereal than the orange box although the regular Wheaties box is larger. But the servings per box are significantly different -- nine for Fuel and 16 for regular Wheaties -- making the new version more expensive to eat.

TV ads began in January

Sales of Wheaties Fuel started online last September and appeared on grocery store shelves in January. General Mills also began running advertisements around the time of the Super Bowl showing Manning flinging footballs to make-believe receivers in a pasture. More advertising will follow, Stangler said. "Stay tuned."

He said Fuel intends to keep its five endorser-athletes as long-term partners while regular Wheaties will continue to periodically rotate athletes on the cover of its boxes. The next featured athletes on the regular Wheaties are Olympians Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn and Seth Wescott.

Wheaties could use a shot in the arm from Fuel. According to Information Resources Inc., sales of Wheaties have been in decline for the past several years, including a nearly 13 percent drop last year. (The data don't include sales at Wal-Mart.)

Stangler said the sales decline is a reflection more of the growing cereal market than of Wheaties' popularity, with more than 250 brands available to consumers.

Mogelonsky said she is intrigued by the Wheaties Fuel approach, noting that its packaging is "manly."

"The box is startling. There's no question who it is intended for. A guy can put this on the top of his shopping cart without looking weird," she said. "It will attract attention for a while, but there is a lot of competition out there."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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