Episode 61


What does it mean to be a brand?

One of the most critical barriers to success is understanding what a brand is and what a brand is NOT.  I get this question all the time. Let me tell you what a brand is NOT: A brand is NOT a name, logo, tag-line, package design or the product itself. I call these elements: Window-dressing your brand. A brand is simply an EMOTIONAL IDENTITY that differentiates products, services and people.

As a former marketing executive at global multi-billion dollar consumer products companies like Nabisco, Kraft Foods, Cadbury and Godiva, I successfully crafted emotional identities for some of the world’s most iconic brands. Over the course of 25 years, a frequent challenge I faced was communicating the role a brand played in consumer’s lives…in other words its Core Value. To solve this problem, I developed a process to label that brand’s Core Value using just ‘One Word’.  This helps consumers understand what they are actually buying. 

During this series, I will select a brand I worked on or studied and share it’s ‘One Word’ Core Value, as well as share valuable topics in the branding arena that will help you Stand-Out Conquer Obstacles and Reach Excellence…in other words, SCORE.

So let’s turn to today’s brand clip…CHEERIOS

Show Notes (click to expand)

I always say that winning brands know the “business” they’re in…and it’s NOT the products they sell. For example, Oreo is NOT in the “cookie” business, Ben & Jerry’s is NOT in the “ice cream” business and Starbucks is NOT in the “coffee” business. Those are simply the categories they each compete in. I believe that winning brands are in the business of selling their “core value” and today’s brand is no exception. Cheerios is NOT in the “cereal” business and if you listen further, I will explain why in just ‘One Word’.

If you’re like me, then I would venture to say that as a kid, you loved cereals like Cocoa Pebbles, Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks…not only for their sweet taste, but also for the toys and prizes inside the box. However, I bet that before you came to love these sugary breakfast treats, your first exposure to cereal was a high chair tray full of cheerios? Why? Because they dissolve easily without having to be chewed, which means they’re less likely to cause choking.

So where did this classic brand Cheerios originate, and how did it get its iconic shape? 

Well I’m about to tell you!

Before the invention of Cheerios, the breakfast cereal landscape was by no means exciting. Depression-era families were faced with early mornings either eating mushy hot cereal that had to be cooked before serving, or corn-based cold cereals, such as Wheaties and Corn Flakes. Then in 1941, General Mills launched Cheerios. 

HERE’S A FUN FACT: This cereal was originally called Cheerioats in an attempt to emphasize the healthy, more wholesome aspects of this new product. 

However, the distinctive ‘O’ shaped, puffed-oat product almost didn’t come to fruition. General Mills tasked physicist and employee Lester Borchardt with inventing a machine that would transform oat dough into a crunchy, ready-to-eat puffed cereal. After spending tons of money and time and failing to perfect this technique, the team was told to stop the project. However, Borchardt thought the idea was sound and decided to keep going. Two months later, General Mills had a new cereal named Cheerioats and they changed the cereal landscape forever. General Mills overcame one final challenge when Quaker Oats claimed that the word “oats” in the name was an infringement on their trademark. Thus in 1945, General Mills pivoted and named their cereal Cheerios.

For the first 30 or so years, eating a bowl of Cheerios meant eating a product made from the original, classic recipe. That changed in the late 70’s when Honey Nut Cheerios was launched. Since that time, Honey Nut Cheerios has become such a favorite that not only does it outsell the original Cheerios flavor, but also it has been the number one cereal in America every year since 2009. This new flavor even led to the birth of the bumblebee (named BuzzBee) that became the official mascot for Cheerios. 

HERE’S ANOTHER FUN FACT: Because Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday, I wanted to highlight that on the 20th anniversary of Honey Nut Cheerios, BuzzBee became the first and only-ever bee balloon in the Parade’s history. BuzzBee also floated above the crowds as the first-ever cereal mascot balloon.

The Cheerios brand team has been trying to associate their cereal with a healthy diet since its introduction, and commercials in the 1950s promised that eating Cheerios would promote “healthy nerves” and “good red blood.”


But in the late 2000s, a series of marketing claims landed the company in hot water. Cheerios claimed that switching to their cereal for breakfast could reduce “bad” cholesterol levels by four percent in just six weeks, and would prevent heart disease and cancers of the colon and stomach. These claims were present on the product’s packaging, website, and were even announced in supermarkets. 


The FDA was not having it and shot back with a letter to General Mills stating that its claims about the health benefits of eating Cheerios would reclassify the cereal as a drug because it was “intended for use in the prevention, mitigation and treatment of disease.”


The FDA demanded that Cheerios either apply for classification as a cholesterol-lowering drug or change the wording on the boxes. The company complied by changing the labeling to read as follows:


“Three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cheerios™ and Honey Nut Cheerios™ cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, MAY reduce the risk of heart disease. Cheerios provides 1 gram per serving. Honey Nut Cheerios provides .75 grams per serving. While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol MAY reduce the risk of this disease.”

Just a side note: Having developed and launched the Planters NUTrition line of nuts in 2005, we had these same HEART-HEALTHY challenges with the FDA and had to put the following claim on all of our cans:

“Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol MAY reduce the risk of heart disease”


It’s amazing how the ‘One Word’ –  MAY – can keep the FDA away!


General Mills is so committed to empowering people to live a HEART-HEALTHY lifestyle that it launches annually limited-edition boxes with happy heart-shaped Cheerios, along with the iconic “O”. 


If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this:

  • Your product is NOT your brand.
  • Your brand is your Core Value…AND
  • You use your product as the vehicle to drive your Core Value.
  • Cheerios uses their cereal to drive their Core Value of HEART-HEALTHY.

It appears that every month is HEART-HEALTHY month at Cheerios – not just February! So the next time you’re looking to do something healthy for your heart, remember this: 


I’m Rich Keller, The CATALYST and see you next time on The CATALYST Effect!

Listen & Subscribe on

Join my

and Never Miss an Episode

Join my

and Never Miss
an Episode

Share this episode



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *