Sunday, May 22, 2016

I eat cannibals

I love advertising. I'm one of those people who does not fast-forward through commercials. I actually enjoy watching commercials. I like the clever ones. I like the creative ones. I even like the stupid ones, in a "what not to do" capacity. I suppose it's because I've been in the marketing/advertising field for so many years, I feel I need to keep on top of my industry, making myself aware of current trends and not becoming complacent to rest upon my proverbial laurels.

I like to research and trace the history of advertising, especially for a product that has been around for a while. It is interesting to see how the methods have changed (or haven't changed) for the same product over a period of years or even decades. I often wonder who was the lucky ad agency representative that was able to convince a stuffy corporate executive to loosen up a bit with their ad campaigns. Who was able to get Charles Grigg to stop calling his carbonated elixir "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," shorten it to "7Up" and brand it as a psychedelic alternative to cola? It turned out to be excellent advice. See? Some courageous company decision-maker has to be the one to take a chance. To change for the benefit of company growth.

Consumer foods giant General Mills has been a leader in product and product marketing for over a century and a half. They didn't become a twenty-three billion dollar-a-year company by accident. Considering they produce staple goods similar to those produced by other companies, marketing was key in General Mills growth and staying power. That's why core brands like Gold Medal remain number one choices among consumers, along with acquired brands like Pillsbury and Green Giant.

Of course, General Mills is synonymous with "cereal." Names like Wheaties, Cheerios and Chex have been around — gosh! — nearly forever. Clever marketing has elevated brands like Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms to lofty levels, nearly untouchable by competitors. Each of these cereals, introduced in the mid-twentieth century, featured a fun mascot, instantly endearing to the younger target market at which they were aimed. General Mills used this same strategy with subsequent breakfast food introductions — The "Monster" cereals in the 70s, and, my personal favorite, Cinnamon Toast Crunch in 1984.

The evolution of Cinnamon Toast Crunch is an interesting journey through marketing trends and changes. Cinnamon Toast Crunch came along in much the same way as many of its predecessors. It was a crunchy wheat/rice combo coated with cinnamon and sugar. The box initially featured a happy little drawing of a cinnamon-kissed slice of bread and his pal, a smiling cinnamon shaker. These characters soon gave way to three happy, yet bumbling, animated bakers, all decked out in pristine kitchen whites. There was jolly Wendell, the obvious leader of the trio. He was flanked by two unnamed colleagues, although they were inexplicably referred to as "Bob" and "Quello." The group appeared in a series of commercials and their likenesses were emblazoned on box fronts for association and recognition (them there are marketing words!). In 1991, however, Wendell's associates were shown the door and the white-haired baker was flying solo. His visibility was increased and his adventures became the focus of commercials and promotions, including send-away premiums, like plush dolls. Wendell was prominently featured on every redesign of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch box as well as spin-off versions like French Toast Crunch, Peanut Butter Crunch and Frosted Toast Crunch.

But in 2009, after a solo run of eighteen years, the venerable Wendell disappeared. He was replaced by strange little creatures known as "The Crazy Squares." I can only imagine the conversation, and eventual convincing, that took place in the advertising strategy meeting up in the Minnesota corporate headquarters of General Mills. Seated at a long, dark-wood table in the center of a conference room lined with matching dark-wood paneling, the General Mills executive board gathered to be pitched to. A slick, nattily-dressed young man from the contracted ad agency — his head full of outside-the-box creativity and his hair full of mousse — clicked along a PowerPoint presentation while the stuffy seniors stoically sipped water from glasses wet with condensation.

Just after the first few slides displaying growth charts and boring facts and figures, the slick ad man unleashed this guy  — 
A collective gasp from the board members cut the air. Sure, this little character is smiling. Sure, he's full of whimsy and mischief. Sure, he's dusted with sparkly sugar and inviting cinnamon, but there's something... something.... off about him. Something malevolent. As the presentation offered more detail, the true horror was revealed.
Look! The little guy is playful! How cute!

Look! Oh, he's so funny, just floating in the bowl!

Ha! He's a little dickens! Getting silly with another Cinnamon Toast "Crazy Square."

Oh, this is a little weird, but I guess it's fun and those guys are adorable!

Wait! WAIT! What the fuck? What's going on here?

HOLY SHIT! THEY'RE EATING EACH OTHER!

At that point, I assume, the CEO stood up at the table, cleared his throat and leaned forward. He was prepared to send slick ad guy and his crazy new campaign on the quickest route to the elevator. But then, suddenly, he had a moment of clarity. A vision. An epiphany. "If this campaign riled me up," he thought, "imagine how it will make kids feel! Kids love this shit! And, if kids love it, they'll beg Mom to buy those Crazy Squares!" A smile beamed across the CEO's face. He blotted his dampened brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and commended the slick ad guy. "Genius, my boy!," he bellowed, "Genius!" The slick ad guy smiled smugly. The board members applauded.

And so, the stalwart, reliable, friendly Cinnamon Toast Crunch became edgier and more aggressive in its advertising, taking a somewhat dangerous route. But, it worked! They took a gamble and it worked out great. It was no longer about "gee, our cereal is good and it tastes good and it's good for you" and hundreds of testaments that have been repeated over and over. It was now a shocking, attention-grabbing surprise with very little to do with the actual cereal. The Crazy Squares have been shilling for Cinnamon Toast Crunch for seven years, even appearing on new holiday-themed versions of the cereal, as well as a new chocolate version and reintroduced peanut butter variety.

But what ever became of Wendell? I'd be willing to bet those Crazy Square bastards ate him.

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