Kellogg’s Policy Threatens Icons

CHICAGO For generations of American children, nothing says Saturday morning like Toucan Sam following his nose for some Froot Loops on the tube. Likewise Tony the Tiger roaring “They’re Grrrreat” and Snap, Crackle and Pop whooping it up in a bowl of Rice Krispies.

But as the War on Obesity pushes further into adland, such kiddie-targeted characters are undergoing makeovers or plain losing favor—much like the products they hawk. And Kellogg’s announcement last week that by the end of 2008 the company will no longer advertise cereals that don’t meet a new set of self-imposed health standards to children under 12 begs the question of whether these icons’ beloved essence can survive the inevitable changes.

While Frosted Flakes is another matter, neither Froot Loops nor Rice Krispies currently fit in with Kellogg’s self-imposed guidelines of its cereals having fewer than 200 calories, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat (and no trans fats), fewer than 230 milligrams of sodium and fewer than 12 grams of sugar per serving. (It’s the sodium that gets the Rice Krispies.) Between now and 2008, the company will work to either reformulate the products to fit those guidelines or switch its advertising target to an older demographic, which could require a mascot makeover. (The company said it currently does not target any advertising at children under 6.)

“Our hope is to take some of the guidelines and reformulate, and then we can continue to use Toucan Sam,” said Kellogg’s CMO Mark Baynes. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve got some interesting challenges ahead of us.”

Altering a brand icon can be a tricky task. Just ask Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which recently reintroduced popcorn king Orville Redenbacher in a series of commercials that digitally reanimated the deceased icon for more modern times. The commercials met with decidedly mixed results. (An agency representative declined comment on the ads.)

“The two biggest pitfalls are doing something that’s too dramatic or too quick for your brand, or doing something that doesn’t make sense for the character,” said Chris Lehmann, ecd for Landor Associates in San Francisco, a brand consultancy firm. “If you plan it out over the right period of time, and you do it in character, then it’s easy to do.”

Tony the Tiger is one character that’s already undergone some changes. (Under the new guidelines, Frosted Flakes is still fit for advertising targeting kids under 12.) Three years ago, Kellogg’s repositioned Tony the Tiger to be more than just a tagline-spouting cartoon icon.

“In the mid- to late-’90s, Tony was a bit of a buffoon,” Baynes said. “He wasn’t credible and kids were starting to lose a lot of association with the brand.”

The resulting ad campaign, from Kellogg’s lead agency Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, positioned Tony as a coach and mentor who helped kids train for sporting events. The campaign, which also included a revamped Web site, CD-ROMs that came with the cereal and high-profile athletes partnering with Tony, encouraged kids to “Earn their stripes.” (Tony continued to say his signature tagline at the end of the spots.)

“It’s been a good message, and it was a good time to do it,” said John Sheehy, co-global head of the Kellogg’s account for Burnett. “We’re also seeing a great response to it from moms as well, who see Tony as an ally for them.”

Lehmann noted that the “Earn your stripes” evolution was successful because Tony the Tiger stood for more than just sugary cereal. He was a friend to kids and moving him into a coach role was a natural fit. Similarly, McDonald’s revamp of Ronald McDonald in 2005 to a more fitness-friendly mascot who wore an athletic tracksuit rather than a clownish jumper was an easy shorthand for the company to signify its commitment to a new direction.

“A lot of the same [principles] applied to McDonald’s,” Lehmann said. “If they want to represent a new focus, using Ronald can be the quickest way to do that.”

It still may be possible for Kellogg’s to have its (healthier) cake and eat it too. The company has roughly 18 months to find suitable reformulated versions of its cereals, which would allow them to continue to use its brand icons while subtly shifting them to a healthier message.

“It would be great for Kellogg’s to make a more nutritious product and still maintain the fun that they’re known for,” Lehmann said.

And there’s evidence that the mascots could be redeployed on an older generation without much of a makeover. Snap, Crackle and Pop recently have taken a reduced role, appearing in mom-targeted work for Rice Krispies. The spots, which have been running during prime time, show moms introducing their kids to Rice Krispies and listening to the signature sounds. The tagline for the effort is, “Childhood is calling,” and the characters are prominently featured on the box. (The company has not totally abandoned kids. The characters have been appearing at concerts and in an online video for kids’ music artist Ralph’s World.)

“We had a message to kids, [but] it wasn’t working and it wasn’t relevant,” added Baynes. “Rice Krispies works much better with an emotional connection with mom. If we could no longer advertise Froot Loops to kids, I’d be very concerned about the relevance of kids to the character. [But] we can always find ways to once again use Toucan in a positive way and [mom’s] memories of the brand.”