The Breakfast Bowl blog played up the news big time recently: “All the monsters are back!”
It’s a screamer headline you’d expect from a cerealophile website describing, as it says, “one of the most celebrated cereal franchises.”
Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry are making their annual pre-Halloween pilgrimage back to the grocery store. And this year their creator, General Mills, is even bringing back Frute Brute and Yummy Mummy, two lesser monsters tucked in a marketer’s crypt for at least two decades.
Golden Valley-based General Mills is taking a page from a marketing playbook that turned McDonald’s McRib from a flop into a cultural icon. The idea: Create scarcity for a quirky or nostalgic product so that when it appears, demand surges.
Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry had their heyday in the 1970s, when they were heavily marketed. Over the years, sales waned and General Mills shifted cereal marketing dollars elsewhere, until 2009 when full-time production of the monsters was halted.
But General Mills had noticed a seasonal sales effect for the monsters. “We found our volume spiked during the Halloween season,” said Ari Zainuddin, a General Mills marketing manager.
As Halloween became more of a commercial event, retailers emphasized Halloween oriented products. The monster cereals fit right in.
General Mills this year began full national distribution in early September, and for the first time it’s selling the monster cereals in their original packaging, exclusively at Target stores.
Then there’s the return of Frute Brute, a werewolf motif that ran from 1974 to 1982, and Yummy Mummy, which lasted only from 1987 to 1990. They’re the Marx Brothers equivalent of Zeppo and Gummo (yes, there was a Gummo).
“We had a lot of fan feedback saying, ‘Why don’t you bring back Yummy Mummy and Frute Brute?’ ” Zainuddin said. “And we wanted to capitalize on the organic growth with the three we have right now.”
Sales of the monsters have grown, though Mills won’t give specifics. That growth has come with minimal promotional expense. “There is basically no marketing,” Zainuddin said. “We rely on the fans to talk about it among themselves and sell it.”
Fans like Lloyd Moritz of Washington, who publishes the Breakfast Bowl. While he’s actually much more likely to eat a bowl of Quaker Oatmeal Squares than Count Chocula, Moritz says he’s fascinated by cereal, particularly its place in pop culture, from Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam to the Trix rabbit.
“Part of the neat thing about cereal is that it’s so ingrained in pop culture,” Moritz said. “There’s probably not another food I can think of that’s into nostalgia like this.”
The golden era of cartoon characters pushing cereal waned as concerns over sugar in kids’ cereal increased. “As companies became more concerned about health — and they should have — the fun aspect has been diminished,” Moritz said.
Health sells today, though even kids’ cereal has considerably less sugar these days. The monster cereals contain 9 grams of sugar per serving — 40 percent less than in 2007 and in line with some flavored iterations of Cheerios.
Bringing back a product annually has its challenges. Production and packaging lines at highly automated cereal plants have to be reset. And supermarket operators, whose shelf space is scarce, must be convinced a product is worth stocking only temporarily, said Rick Shea, a Twin Cities marketing consultant. “You have to make sure the product has a home.”
But the allure is in capturing pent-up consumer demand. “It’s the idea of scarcity,” said Vlad Griskevicius, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “Humans are wired to want things they can’t have.”
The McRib is the classic example. An early 1980s loser for McDonald’s, it was discontinued after a few years. But the company brought it back for a short time in the late 1980s, and then again in the early 1990s. The McRib window was always opened only briefly. Demand soared.
Ever since, McRib appearances elicit much media yakking and fan adoration. “There are McRib heads who follow it around,” Griskevicius said. A Simpsons episode was even built around the concept. Stay tuned to see if Count Chocula ever shares the cartoon stage with Homer and Marge.