Special K case study: How to move from indifferent to beloved

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Special K is a great case study of a brand who has gone from a one-dimensional boring cereal into something beyond what the brand could imagine. Cereal is one of those categories filled with a touch of magic, many of the beloved brands coming out of the “Mad Men” days of TV advertising. 

Brands like Corn Flakes, Cheerios, Rick Krispies and Froot Loops have a certain wholesome charm. These brands are in a bit of a time warp, a throwback to simpler times when cartoons were only on Saturday mornings.

Special K

Special K was an indifferent brand

I worked in the cereal business back in the 1990’s and we never thought anything about Special K. It just sat there with a very small share. Basically, it was just the one-flavor of cereal. Zero innovation. Just Rice Krispies crushed differently. Trust me, I was on the General Mills side and no one was worried about Special K.

Special K had been connected with weight loss since the mid 80s. Their ads were focused on 110 calories–which is just a feature, not a benefit for the consumer.  

Brand managers need to remember that 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?” It was implied, but it was buried in the woman looking at herself in the mirror.

Brand love curve

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. At the beloved stage, demand becomes desire, needs become cravings, thinking is replaced with feelings. Consumers become outspoken fans.

Before 2000, 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. 

The brand needed an idea. They were dancing around the idea of weight loss but not really bringing the benefit to life. They were stuck on low calorie, not weight loss. 

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Special K brand positioning

A brand starts with an idea

The most beloved brands are based on an idea that is worth loving. It is the idea that connects the brand with consumers. Under the brand idea are 5 consumer touchpoints, including:

  • Brand promise
  • Brand Story
  • Innovation
  • Purchase moment
  • Consumer experience

Everyone wants to debate what makes a great brand–whether it’s the product, the advertising, the experience or through consumers. It is not just one or the other–it is the collective connection of all these things that make a brand become loved.

Special K became about consumers

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 two weeks. While all the other diet options felt daunting, this felt pretty easy to do.

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.

Empowering Women

The communication of the Brand Story become about empowering women to take control using the “Two-week challenge.” Here’s a very empowering ad around the “Drop a Jean Size” idea.

With a Brand Idea bigger than just a cereal, Special K’s innovation rivalled 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. This year, they’ve just announced they are re-looking Special K’s original recipe to keep the cereal share strong.

Rounding out the consumer 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. They have also tapped into time of year occasions around New Years and spring to re-enforce the brand messages.

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