Little O’s, Yellow Box: A Look Back At 74 Years Of Cheerios At General Mills

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. (WCCO) — In a fast-paced, high tech world, breakfast begins as it always has in the Skinner home, with Jack and Emmy pouring out little O’s from a big yellow box.

It’s the same morning ritual as a million other American families perform each morning, beginning each day with the flagship cereal of the General Mills family.

“It’s a billion-dollar brand here in the United States alone,” General Mills’ Vice President of U.S. Retail Jeff Harmening exclaimed.

Harmening says Cheerios’ impact goes far beyond its sales — he says he’s proudest of how it nourishes healthy lives.

“Yes, it’s a big brand and we sell a lot of it, but really it’s the nourishing lives piece that is really critical to General Mills and is so important to us,” Harmening said.

General Mills launched the cheerios brand back in 1941 as Cheeri Oats. The name was changed a few years later to what it is today, Cheerios. Seventy four years later, it is still the bestselling brand of ready-to-eat cereal on American breakfast tables.

In fact, those who are old enough to recall the popular Rock and Bullwinkle cartoon of the 1950s and 60s will remember the television pitch for Cheerios. The characters were created for that very purpose in mind.

To unlock the cereal’s rich history, we were given a rare glimpse inside the company’s archives. Doug Martin is the brand’s marketing manager for General Mills.

“Basically, you’re looking at 74 years of Cheerios boxes here,” he said, among classic advertisements and cereal boxes.

The vault holds decades of treasures and trinkets related to the brand. On one table is displayed a variety of toys that were redeemable in exchange of cereal box tops.

“In the late 40s you would mail in and get this ring, with a filmstrip showing Marines in action,” Martin said.

There is also a display dated to the year 2000, when the first 10 million pennies minted for the new millennium were hidden as prizes inside the Cheerios box — a sharp contrast to the popular 1950s western town which children assembled from figures cutout from the box.

“If you collected all 9 boxes and you would create this three-foot square town,” Martin explained.

As fun as it is to reminisce, it’s Martin’s job to keep the message relevant.

“I think the magic of Cheerios is it took something people love — oatmeal — and made it convenient, ready to eat, instantly,” he said.

But 68 years after Cheerios first appeared on store shelves, it lost its billing as the best-selling cereal in America, only because it was replaced by a more popular offshoot of the original, Honey Nut Cheerios, which till remains as the top-selling brand in America and Canada.

Honey Nut Cheerios is among the 12 varieties and flavors born from the original. Together, the single brand controls 12 percent of the U.S. cereal market — one in eight boxes pulled from grocer’s shelves carries the Cheerios label.

“One of the reasons why Cheerios is two-and-a-half times bigger than the next biggest brand in the cereal category is because we’ve kept it relevant with consumers over time, while staying true to what the brand is about,” Harmening explained.

So how has the Cheerios brand managed to stay on top all these years? Carlos Torelli is a professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

“This is what I think Cheerios is very good at, the product has been embedded in the fabric of the culture,” he explained.

Torelli points to the brand’s cultural authority. Examples of that would be recent television commercials that embrace a father’s role in raising children, as well as commercials which place an emphasis on a healthful diet.

“A lot of brands are doing that now but Cheerios did that a long time ago,” Torelli said. “So they’re very fast realizing where the consumer is going and trying to be there with them with a solution, a communication.”

The latest example of that will roll out in July 2015, when General Mills unveils its gluten-free Cheerios. The process is made possible by renovations to the company’s oats processing facility in Fridley. The plant can now separate out the minutest grains of wheat, rye or barley that would previously contaminate an entire shipment of pure oats.

“We will just continue to evolve as we need to too fit the American diet,” Martin said.

And continue to satisfy the breakfast cravings for generations to come, with those little O’s in the big yellow box.

More from Bill Hudson
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