Honey Nut Cheerios: From flanker to favorite
Did you get a chance to try Strawberry Cheerios while it was on shelves this summer? The limited-edition cereal is one of 13 Cheerios “flankers” or varieties available in stores.
This fall, you’ll see Pumpkin Spice Cheerios begin its limited run.
But those cereals, or any of the other Cheerios flankers created since 1979, might not exist today if not for the journey of the Cereal team at General Mills at the time to launch Honey Nut Cheerios.
Within a decade it became a top-ten selling cereal.
However, as I learned researching the history of the brand, the idea of creating the first Cheerios flanker was nearly rejected well before Honey Nut had the opportunity to become a longtime breakfast favorite.
The first attempt at flanking Cheerios
Cinnamon Nut Cheerios entered U.S. test markets June 1976, aimed at adults with its distinct, slightly hot-cinnamon flavor profile.
Although trial was excellent, repeat sales weren’t good enough to project success over the long term. As a result, the Cereal team made the difficult decision to discontinue the product instead of taking it nationwide.
Former General Mills CEO Steve Sanger recalled the sentiment in the Cereal division at that time.
“Those who didn’t like the idea of flanking Cheerios in the first place thought this result reinforced their judgement that Cheerios should be left alone,” says Steve.
However, Ted Cushmore, the marketing director on Big G family cereals in the 1970s, recalls that he wasn’t about to give up the search for a Cheerios flanker.
He recognized the incremental opportunity a second attempt at flanking Cheerios could bring. The team just needed the perfect concept and flavor pairing.
Ted describes the strategic vision he had for Cheerios line extensions.
“With Cinnamon Nut Cheerios we discontinued a product that would have been okay for a year or two, but we didn’t want the first Cheerios flanker to fail,” Ted says. “The cereal didn’t have a broad enough flavor profile, so rather than reformulate we decided to start over to see if we could generate new and better ideas.”
By the way, Cinnamon Nut Cheerios is one of 14 Cheerios flankers that were launched and later discontinued (the list includes Banana Nut and Berry Burst Triple Berry).
The creation of Honey Nut Cheerios
Ted recalls when the team tested Honey Nut Cheerios it had the best consumer scores any previous General Mills cereal had received.
“We were absolutely sure it was going to be a big launch that would grow share for the Cheerios franchise,” he says.
But by Honey Nut Cheerios’ launch year in 1979, the U.S. was heading into its second major recession in less than a decade. Unemployment was growing to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many consumers were trading-down food items, and could no longer afford to regularly buy trendy presweetened cereals.
Honey Nut Cheerios differentiated itself by offering the delicious sweet taste consumers craved, coupled with great value to match lower-priced all-family cereals.
In my research, I learned that our Cereal team also issued 29 million coupons for free sample-size boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios. This helped families minimize the risk of trying a new cereal during the recession. Consistent all-family advertising, coupled with a commitment to great taste and value earned Honey Nut Cheerios an impressive $38 million in sales in its first year.
The brand continued to gain significant share, and by 1992 – just 13 years after launch – Honey Nut Cheerios had the third largest dollar volume among U.S. cereals.
The Honey Nut Cheerios bee gets a name
While the famous Honey Nut Cheerios bee had been featured in messaging since the brand’s inaugural ad, he never had a name to call his own.
In 1999, Honey Nut Cheerios asked kids to help them name their bee character as part of the cereal’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
The bee was transformed into a giant balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with NBC’s Matt Lauer and Katie Couric launching the announcement for his naming contest.
Entries flooded in from children all across America. Kristine Tong won the essay contest with the name “BuzzBee.”
Going gluten free
By 2010, health food trends and headwinds were impacting the cereal category, resulting in share loss for many leading cereals.
A team of three creative inventors at General Mills – Phil Zietlow, Dan Winderl, and John Hellweg – quietly worked on a hobby project to create new technologies that could make Cheerios gluten free.
Their largest obstacle was garnering support for this idea in a division that prioritized other projects.
But Phil was on a personal mission for his daughter-in-law Joyce, as she had recently been diagnosed with celiac disease.
“I said, ‘Joyce has got to be able to eat Cheerios,’” recalls Phil. “I wanted to make a product for her and all the people that can’t have gluten. They should be able to enjoy the same foods as everyone else.”
The team realized that buying certified gluten-free oats was not a solution, as that supply would run out after only a few weeks of Cheerios production.
There was a better way. But it would take years of planning and testing.
Phil, and Troy Bierbaum, repurposed farm equipment and began designing a system that could sort out naturally gluten-free oats from other stray-grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Small batch testing was a success, and Phil needed budget to build a larger demonstration system to sort plant-production oats.
When the Cereal division declined capital investment support, Phil asked division leaders if he could use his own 401k to buy the equipment and prove the invention could work.
A few weeks later, Phil met General Mills CEO Ken Powell in a reception line after a company meeting.
“I told him we need to support innovation,” says Phil. “I said, ‘I’ve been working on gluten-free Cheerios for a few years now and want to use my own money to pay for testing, but they won’t let me do it.’ Ken grabbed my hand mid-sentence and said, ‘Phil, I like your passion, keep working on it.’”
Phil says the money soon became available.
“We bought our equipment, and started large-scale testing. You’ve just got to keep the faith and believe in the team and the big idea,” Phil says.
When initial plant-produced trials began for gluten-free Cheerios in May 2014, Phil set aside the first box for Joyce to test.
“It was the first time in five years that I was able to tell Joyce what I had been working on,” he recalls, sharing the emotion. “There was a lot of risk in this project. I needed her to try it to make sure it was okay. She called me the next day and said, ‘Dad, it was fantastic, I love it.’ I was so relieved. That phone call from her was huge.”
From its courageous beginning as the new cereal worth championing, Honey Nut Cheerios has evolved over three decades and counting to stay relevant in changing consumer landscapes.
In sharing their stories of recognizing opportunity and fighting for big ideas, Ted and Phil both reminded me during our 150th anniversary year that our brands thrive off our passion, creativity and determination.
The rich history of our past can inspire the remarkable brand stories of tomorrow.
Editor’s note: In 2016, General Mills is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This story is part of a year-long series on “A Taste of General Mills” to highlight the people, products and projects that have contributed to the company’s legacy.
The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. Discover more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com. If you have a question about our history, or would like to donate an item to the company archives, send our Archives team an email at email@example.com.
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