September 23, 2015
Indifferent: Special K was stuck in a rut back in the 80s and 90s
I worked in the cereal business back at General Mills in the 1990’s and we never thought anything about Special K. It just sat there with a very small and dying share. Basically, it was just the one flavor of cereal. Zero innovation. It was just Rice Krispies crushed differently. The brand idea for Special K has been connected with weight loss since the mid 70s, but the ads were focused on 110 calories and a de-motivating “pinch an inch”. Basically just a problem and a feature, not a solution or benefit for the consumer. Here’s a Special K ad from the 1980s and you’ll see why competitors were not very worried.
Feature, feature, feature. All our messages jammed into one ad. This is a classic example that why no one cares what you do until you care what they want. No one at Special K was putting themselves in the shoes of the consumer and asking “so what do I get?” or “how does this make me feel?”
In the consumer’s mind, brands sit on a Brand Love Curve, with brands going from Indifferent to Like It to Love It and finally becoming a Beloved Brand for Life. At the Beloved stage, demand becomes desire, needs become cravings, thinking is replaced with feelings and Consumers become outspoken fans.
Special K was clearly an Indifferent Brand. There was very little consumer opinion, and for those who did buy Special K, they weren’t exactly the most ardent fans of the brand. Not only was the original flavor fairly bland, but everything about the brand was bland. Special K needed to stand for something. It needed an idea. They were dancing around the idea of weight loss but not really bringing the benefit to life.
The most beloved brands build everything around a Big Idea
The reality of branding is the market is so crowded and cluttered that consumers need everything simplified so they can even decide to engage. Consumers connect with a brand’s BIG IDEA that can simplify, explain and transform your brand’s SOUL into a brand REPUTATION that you can build behind. In too many situations I see, the story meanders and changes as it gets bigger. To ensure delivery of the brand’s Soul, you need to line up all 5 brand magic moments underneath simple Big Idea: brand promise, story, innovation, purchase moment and experience.
What you want to do is create a simple brand promise that separates your brand from competitors, based on being better, different or cheaper. Use your brand story to motivate consumers to think, feel or act, while beginning to own a reputation in the mind and hearts of consumers. Make sure you have a fundamentally sound product, using innovation to stay at the forefront of trends and using technology to deliver on your brand promise. The purchase moment of truth as consumers move through the purchase cycle and use channels, messaging, processes to make the final decision. Turn the usage of your product into an experience that becomes a ritual and favorite part of their day.
A loved brand: The re-birth of Special K
Before we get to the “own it” idea, we need to acknowledge the last 15 years of great work has really helped Special K set up the ability to even contemplate something as big as “own it”. Around 2000, Special K made a dramatic turn in the market. With all the diet-crazed consumers looking for new solutions, Special K had a stroke of brilliance when someone figured out that if you ate Special K twice a day for just two weeks, you could lose up to 6 pounds in 2 weeks. While all the other diet options felt daunting, this felt pretty easy to do. At that time, the big idea for Special K was “Empowering Women to take control of their weight”. While Special K had spent decades dancing around the weight loss idea, now they had a Brand Promise that was benefit focused and empowering: With Special K, just twice a day for 2 weeks, you can lose 6 pounds or better yet, drop a jean size. They stopped talking about the product and starting talking in the voice of the consumer. The brilliant strategy is around the usage occasion of the second meal each day. Cereal had been a category that grew +3% for years, steady only with population growth and some demographics around boomers and echo generations. But now, there was finally a reason to eat cereal twice in one day. The communication of the Brand Story become about empowering women to take control using the Two Week Challenge. With a Brand Idea bigger than just a cereal, Special K’s innovation rivaled that of Apple. It started with the launch of Berry Special K that thrust the brand into a good tasting cereal, and has since added bars, shakes and water. Most recently, they’ve now launched potato chips (only 80 calories for 20 chips) and a Breakfast Sandwich option. it just goes to show you that it’s not about ‘out of the box’ ideas, but rather how you define the box. All these product launches are aligned to the idea of empowering women to maintain their weight. The diversified line up beyond cereal helps off-set any sales softness on cereal. And rounding out the Brand Experience is to take the challenge on-line, gives women a community of encouragement to help achieve their personal weight loss goals. Special K has also launched App for smart phones to help monitor weight goals.
A beloved brand: Evolving the Special K brand around a Big idea
Special K has continue to build their Big Idea to where it’s about “inspiring and empowering women to take control and main their healthy body”. For the last 15 years, it’s been all about empowering and control, but the latest work also inspires and challenges women to maintain their healthy body, no matter the “so-called” flaw.
The new “own it” idea shifts the brand story from “losing weight” to loving the body you have and making the most of it. We all have flaws, but this beautiful work gets on the side of consumers, with a bit of Dove and “love who you are” messaging that gets on the side of the consumer mixed with a bit Nike and “no excuses” that challenges the consumer to take charge. I love it.
In the words of Special K: “97% of women have an ‘I hate my body’ moment. Every. Single. Day. We believe that 100% of women have the power to change something more important than the size of their butts. We can change our perspective.”
Special K have done some great print ads in support of the campaign, bringing to life the reality of your body, mixed with the challenge of what you’re willing to do about it.
Some great lessons for other brands.
- Patiently build your brand: It would have been impossible to move from the 1990s “reduced calorie” brand to the “own it” brand. The middle 15 years transformed the Special K brand to where they could command the power to do this type of work.
- Be very focused: Speaking to a specific target (women 25-45) and in their voice makes you a more powerfully connected brand.
- Be consumer obsessed: Everything starts and ends with the consumer in mind. Consumers don’t care what you do until you care what they want. Be benefit focused.
- Build around a brand idea: It’s not out of the box thinking, it’s just re-defining the box to be a bigger idea.
I hope “own it” inspires and challenges you to find the path to making your brand more loved
Below is a presentation of a workshop that we run on “Creating a beloved brand”:
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