When General Mills introduced Cheerios, first called Cheerioats, in the early 1940s, its ads featured a smiling cartoon girl named Cheeri O’Leary, who gave nutrition tips and biographies of movie stars and appeared with Uncle Sam.

Today, the company is relying on YouTube videos and animated photos with quirky tales of people behaving like animals to sell its newest cereal, Tiny Toast.

It’s a change that shows the challenges of standing out among breakfast and snack options as well as breaking through with the teens and young adults General Mills executives want to reach.

“We are making ourselves very prominent in the digital, social space,” said Chad Johnson, director of marketing for General Mills’ cereal innovation. He added later, “That audience that we are talking to is so active and so fragmented just delivering continuous opportunities to interact with the brand is what we’re hoping to do.”

Tiny Toast, a cereal made to look like micro pieces of sugary toast with a sprinkling of real strawberries or blueberries, is General Mills’ first new cereal brand in 15 years. With a portfolio that also includes Wheaties, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Total, the product has a lot to live up to.

“We’ve got a host of iconic brands,” Johnson said. “The decision to launch a new one is taken very seriously because it’s not easy to do, and that’s why we only do it when we have something unique and exciting to talk about.”

The product is emerging at a time when the Golden Valley-based company is reining in spending to cope with falling revenue, including in cereals, its biggest product category.

Last year, the company spent 13 percent less on advertising than it did the year before, according to the Ad Age Datacenter. Company President Jeff Harmening told investors in late June that General Mills would trim marketing spending again during its current fiscal year, which started June 1. Executives did not give specific numbers on how much was to be spent on Tiny Toast’s launch campaign, which will include some limited television ads.

Unlike many cereals that are aimed at children and their parents, Tiny Toast is mainly targeted at older teens and young adults. Johnson said the company will reach out to them via Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and other social channels this summer.

“It’s complicated to a degree by the fact that the audience is far more fragmented than it ever has been and getting information from a variety of different sources, so we think that the activities that we put behind this campaign allow us to engage in a real way and break through,” Johnson said.

In one of the Tiny Toast YouTube videos, an elderly woman eats cereal out of a horse feeding bag. In another, a man gets his back hair sheared by a sheep.

Cereal has to compete with not only other cereal brands but also other more portable alternatives like yogurts and grain bars, as well as places like coffee shops which offer a lot of fast options, said Neil White, president and CEO of ad firm BBDO Minneapolis.

“For many people, just pouring milk on cereal is just not convenient,” said White, who has around 20 years of experience working on the marketing of consumer packaged goods.

Steve Wehrenberg, an advertising professor at the University of Minnesota and former chief executive of Campbell Mithun (now McCann Minneapolis), a longtime advertising partner of General Mills, noted that families who are cereal buyers usually only consider about four to seven kinds. “Especially among adult households, you get into a set of purchasing patterns,” he said.

To get people to consider something new, he said, foodmakers have to sell the attributes and ingredients, such as the honey in Honey Nut Cheerios.

Digital marketing endeavors are a cheaper alternative many times to more traditional mediums and can offer an experimental avenue before the company decides to invest more in paid advertising, Wehrenberg said. However, a social campaign tends to build traction slowly when a company needs to be moving products off a shelf quickly, he said. White agreed.

“I think the benefit of digital is that it enables you to target more precisely,” White said. “The challenge with digital is how do you do it and get the reach that you need.”

The focus on digital is not limited to General Mills’ cereals. For April Fools’ Day, General Mills’ Hamburger Helper brand released a hip-hop mixtape on social media to promote the product. The five-track album went viral. It’s most popular track “Feed the Streets” has been played more than 6 million times on SoundCloud.

For Tiny Toast, General Mills executives want to connect to consumers in the same lighthearted way, Johnson said.

“I think generally it’s just exciting to be part of a launch of a new cereal brand,” he said. “We haven’t done it in a while, and we think we have just a phenomenal product in Tiny Toast, and we’re excited to encourage people to try it.”


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet