Updated on 10.30.08

Some Follow-Up Thoughts on Fruity Cheerios and Branding Our Kids

Trent Hamm

Eli and Cheerios... by Gramody on FlickrSeveral days ago, I wrote an article about the influence of the Fruity Cheerios brand on my two year old child. That article spurned such a tremendous number of responses (including more direct email responses than I’ve ever received to any individual article) that I thought it would be fair to post a follow-up article discussing some of the ideas brought up by the responses.

The cereal “lie” Many people made the astute point that, while it may save money, simply putting generic cereal inside of a Fruity Cheerios box is tantamount to lying to my child and, when he discovers the subterfuge, he’ll have reason not to trust me. Furthermore, it doesn’t really help with the branding issue at all, because the cereal is still coming from a box marked “Fruity Cheerios.”

Both points are quite true. The solution of simply putting generic cereal in a name-brand box doesn’t help at all with branding and it also eliminates trust just to save a buck or two. Not worth it.

Freedom of choice Other readers argued clearly and effectively on behalf of preserving my son’s freedom of choice. I should allow him multiple choices at breakfast and encourage him to choose the healthier and more cost-effective options. Better yet, I should make sure that all of the choices I do offer him are already rather healthy options.

This is something we already do at home. Most breakfast opportunities are choices between toast (my son’s favorite, actually), oatmeal, and two (or so) types of cereal, with other choices sometimes popping up on occasion (bagels, eggs, etc.). He usually either chooses toast (or bagel) or one of the cold cereals, even if other options are available. I do make an effort to ensure that all of the options are at least reasonably healthy, though.

Don’t sweat it; just use coupons Quite a few people argued that a two year old isn’t really that affected by brand recognition, so it’s not a big deal. Plus, with coupons, Cheerios can be purchased very cheaply, so why not simply get him the cereal that he wants?

I disagree pretty strongly with the brand recognition aspect. I can name several brands that my son identifies and looks to very positively: Cars, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Bob the Builder, and Thomas the Tank Engine. He expresses clear preferences for any kind of item that is branded with one of these marketing gimmicks, regardless of how subpar the items are inside. What I’ve been doing to help correct this is showing him how much further his money stretches if he avoids the branded items: “You have enough change to only get one of the Cars toys, but you can get four of these other cars for the same price!”

With regards to where to buy cereal for cheap, if you buy it in bulk, Sam’s Club’s normal prices on an enormous double-bag box of various kinds of Cheerios is cheaper than either the generic or the coupon-reduced Cheerios at other grocery stores per ounce. So, when we buy cereal, we buy it in absurd quantities that usually last a couple of months at least.

Eat generics together A few additional readers suggested that I eat the generic cereal alongside my child to demonstrate that I approve of generics and like them.

This was actually my favorite suggestion of the lot. My children and I eat the exact same thing for breakfast every time we sit down together to eat. However, this does bring up the very strong point that you should talk to your kids about what you’re eating and consuming. Talking to your children (actually, to any children that you might be close enough to to eat breakfast with) about such things is a vital part of teaching them about life.

Our solution So what’s our solution to the whole situation? We dug into the cupboard and pulled out a few clear Rubbermaid containers into which we’ll be putting the cereal from now on. We’ll show our son what we’re putting in each one, but afterwards we’ll let him choose from among the unlabeled, unbranded containers, basing his choice solely upon the contents.

Most important, though, this is a great opportunity to talk about why we purchase stuff. Having Dora the Explorer on the box might make the packaging more interesting, but we’re not going to eat the packaging, are we? What matters is what’s better inside the box – and what food (not container) is the best value for the dollar.

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  1. Nice bit of reflection on a complex issue. It’s nice to see a parent give so much thought to how their attitudes and choices are going to shape their kids. I agree that “tricking” your kid with generic cereal in a brand name box is counter-productive in the long run, just like that woman who bribed the kid in the barber shop to behave decently.

  2. Ranga says:

    “but we’re not going to eat the packaging, are we?”
    Well said, Trent.
    Better idea would be to store the contents in unlabelled boxes.

    In general, when we pay more for big brand-names, we are simply wasting our money by paying for their TV ads, billboards, celebrity-promos, sport-event promos. And, these are the only ways the brands are big, as compared to the generics. There is almost no difference in the content.

  3. Stacey says:

    That reminds me of the time I put generic hand soap in a Dial bottle. My husband was FURIOUS, and he noticed right away. (He gets really greasy, and the generic didn’t cut through grease well.) He’s not against saving money but wants me to be honest about making switches.

    Even though he’s not two years old, it brought up some great discussions: If you want brand Dial, we’ll have to find somewhere else to cut. Where can you live with generics? He’s now using Suave shampoo and Dial hand soap. He’s open to trying generics, just not being tricked into it. Lesson learned!

  4. Amateur says:

    That’s a pretty good idea to throw away the box, so all that matters is what is inside and kids can figure out that pretty early good packaging doesn’t mean good taste.

    But too much money talking to a small child can backfire causing him/her to worry about how much stuff cost instead of enjoying their very short and naive childhood. I came from a family where I felt bad asking about stuff because it was drilled in my head that everything cost too much. As a young adult I went through highs and lows of spending cash I earned during part time jobs, and now as an adult, it took many years to find a balance of what cost too much, and what I should really have because I can afford it, and deserve it, even if it costs too much while saving at the same time. It turns out, a lot of folks share the same money issues I have, consistently obsessing about how much and what I’m getting at once.

  5. DJ says:

    Did no one consider the possibility that at three years old, the child could not make the connection between a brand or just “familiar object”? I mean, let’s face it, he knew his cereal came from the red box. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t say it had anything to do with the fact it was generic vs. name brand. I’m sure his issue had more to deal with the fact that he thought you were trying to give him something different. How many of us have dealt with a three year old who wants a specific stuffed bear, not just any stuffed bear?

  6. Jen says:

    Yes, it is likely that he made the connection with the “familiar object” … I’d think that’s why advertisers work so hard to reach kids, so their products become familiar and then the familiarity becomes loyalty or perceived preference when they get older.

  7. Jen (the other one) says:

    “Perceived preference” is a great phrase.

  8. dee says:

    I also have an almost 3 year old (next week). I totally think kids this age recognize and respond to ‘brands’. I have a girl and Dora is definitely the favorite. We are seriously doing as much as we can to avoid the ‘Disney Princess’ marketing machine for as long as possible.

    If this is an area that you’re interested I would suggest reading “Buy, Buy Baby”. If you weren’t concerned about marketing to children, this will open your eyes. If you were already concerned, it will provide lots of fuel for debate.

  9. Christian Berger says:

    I appreciated this follow-up. The original post was about a fairly innocuous situation, but small decisions like this are interesting to consider. One of the great reasons I read this blog is to hear Trent’s thoughts about issues like these.

  10. steve says:

    I like your approach, Trent. What you are doing by letting your child see what box you are pouring in the plastic container is being honest, yet by then throwing the container out you are making it so they are being exposed to the branding about 1/30 of the time they normally would (if the big bag of cereal lasts a month). You are getting the benefits of honesty and having good and age appropriate discussions with your family, as well as reducing the visual branding impact to, say, once a month after your shopping trip to Sam’s club instead of *every morning* and every time the cupboard is opened and they see the “cheerios box.”

  11. Andrew says:

    I actually posted your first article onto the discussion board of my global marketing class. I am an MBA candidate and we are currently discussing the power of marketing and branding on a global scale and what you are describing is the perfect fit. So does it surprise you to know that you have MBA’s and Ph.D’s discussing your post?

  12. @DJ

    In fact there is a comprehensive body of research that indicates children as young as 1 year can develop strong brand identification. That research was first developed and conducted by marketeers and advertisers.

    You don’t spend money on it and target children unless you know it is going to work.

    The “branding doesn’t have an affect on children” is an argument that has already been disproved. And, those doing the branding know that better than anyone.

  13. Raj says:

    Hey Trent – This serial issue (no pun intended) touches on the broader problem that I encounter when I talk to many people sinking under debt. While struggling to make ends meet, they worry about their inability to transfer the right values to their children. For your part, Rubbermaid containers sound like a great way to go: it’s a cost-effective strategy that’s both “green” and keeps the cereal fresh longer than sitting in a paper box! If one year-olds are young enough to identify brands, maybe they can be taught the difference between branding and product quality.

    All the best,

    Raj Patel

  14. I like the solution you have come up with. Parents doing the same thing – will feel better too knowing there is no lying involved.
    A Dawn Journal

  15. Kevin says:

    No offense, but why not just buy him the cereal he likes? Is it really worth it to save and scrimp on everything in life? If that’s really his favorite, buy him the real thing. I agree on giving him healthy choices as well, but for the times he wants Fruity Cheerios, why go cheap? What if you buy a box of generic and he doesn’t eat it – then you’ve just wasted a couple bucks anyway.

    I’m the same way with Heinz ketchup. I will not eat any other ketchup, it’s just not as good. I don’t mind spending a couple extra bucks for it compared to generic.

  16. Gretchen says:

    I don’t understand the whole branding thing with kids. Your child is certainly not alone in wanting anything to do with Thomas or Cars or whatever. The interesting thing is my own two kids (age 3 and 6) don’t have the same kind of fanatacism about brands that others do. They really could care less about that stuff.

  17. Peter says:

    Realize that the whole “freedom of choice” thing is cultural: only in the USA do parents constantly ask their children “what they prefer”.

    To be honest, I think it increases the stress kids are under, and it increases the power of the marketers (if the parents won’t tell their children what to eat, the marketers will be happy to.)

  18. JEANNE says:

    Another option is simply to say no when he asks for that cereal. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that kids need input into their lives and should be allowed to make choices, but sometimes the answer simply has to be “no” to prepare them for the real world later on.

  19. Stephanie says:

    That’s a great point, Peter. I wasn’t allowed sugary cereals growing up, and my parents told me why… and that was that. I wasn’t allowed McDonald’s either, and I don’t feel deprived at all — I understood it was bad for me, and so grew up with healthy eating habits. When I went over to a friend’s house and their parents let us have KD or McD’s it was a huge treat, and nothing more. At the time I appreciated the unhealthy treats more than I would have if I was allowed to have it all the time!

    Maybe Trent’s treatment of the sugary cereal issue could have been similar — to tell the child that it’s a special treat for when he’s visiting his grandparents, and leave it at that?

  20. Wendy says:

    “Born to Buy” is an interesting book (citing a LOT of research) that explores the effects of marketing on kids. It is imperative to talk to our kids about how marketing doesn’t change the content of a product. Even if it is something that isn’t expensive, as Trent notes about the cereal, it can still be a learning experience. Sometimes the name brand tastes better, sometimes the generic ones do.

  21. Georgia S says:

    A bit off topic, but when I read “branding our kids,” I immediately conjure up a horrifying image of someone taking a branding iron to their children. Just me?

  22. Anna says:

    Peter: well said: Realize that the whole “freedom of choice” thing is cultural: only in the USA do parents constantly ask their children “what they prefer”.

    Many parents seem to get into the habit of saying to their young children, “You want…?” and “You want…?” to the point where I think they don’t even hear themselves saying it. (Possibly this habit originated in an impulse to respect the child, which of course is quite fine, but there are many better ways to express respect.) Thus the child learns that every single choice in life depends on what he or she wants. But as we all know, real life is not like that.

    Far better, with things like meals (not only breakfast) to say, “We’re having XXX today” and not even offer a choice. The child will be well nourished, and opportunities for choice can be given in other areas.

    Of course, this requires some mental discipline by the parent, and an awareness of how an apparently inconsequential habit can have little or no benefit, or even backfire.

  23. Katie says:

    I know this isn’t your point but I am still surprised you have found a generic cereal you feel is comparable in nutrition stats. I buy branded cereals because they are healthier than the generics: with more fiber and protein and less sugar. I am also surprised this point didn’t come up in your analysis. It isn’t always about money (as in the case for buying certain organic products) I happily pay more for safer, healthier items. I just act frugally to purchase them, looking for sales and using coupons and cutting back elsewhere. I think you share the same philosophy so I am surprised you didn’t mention it above.

  24. Penny says:

    We use those cereal containers and I’ll suggest a couple of additional benefits:
    – You can combine more than one type of cereal in the container. Blend generic and name brand. Blend two related varieties. Toss raisins or nuts in with a plain cereal. We’ve had fun with “mystery cereal” — a blend of several cereals and samples.
    – You can decorate the outside of the container. Tape on letters, pictures, drawings, etc. Let your son label his own cereal.

  25. Amber C says:

    About giving kids a choice – when my son was 6 or 7 (he is now a college freshman), I asked what he would like for breakfast he responded that he would like ice cream but he guessed he would settle for cereal. I let him have his ice cream that morning and from then on I would ask if he wanted cereal or toast.

  26. Courtney says:

    I read your first posting about this with great interest, as I have a nine month old, and I know one day, probably very, very soon, I will be facing this same issue. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle it, but it’s interesting to hear your experiences and your solutions.

  27. mary says:

    Overall the brand recognition issue is connected to media exposure. I decided early on that the media wasn’t going to influence my children’s choices, so I eliminated TV. We used the TV to watch VHS tapes and DVD’s; no cable, no satellite, no advertising and another way to save! (Trent, the word spurned means rejected, I think you might mean spurred or started.)

  28. I buy whatever cereal meets my “cheapness” standards($2 or less per largish box), and if my kids don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it, but I don’t offer other choices. They seem to be surviving this just fine. They eat a wide variety of cereals, because the type of cereal that’s cheap enough varies greatly. Sometimes, we have mostly Cheerios, sometimes there’s Golden Grahams, sometimes there’s off-brand mini-wheats, and so on.

    Getting kids used to eating whatever is cheaply available saves money at every meal, not just breakfast.

  29. Mrs. Smith says:

    Wouldn’t it be fun for you and your son to make up decorations for your new clear boxes? He could make up his own “name-brand” cereal with his name! I bet that would be fun.

  30. Jen says:

    In your original post on this, you made it clear that what your son liked about the cereal was the red box. It doesn’t sound like he cares about brands, it just sounds like he liked the brightly-colored box on the table. So I don’t think what you did was dishonest — he saw you put the cereal from the bag in the box.

  31. Jen says:

    P.S. I’d be curious to see if he liked the cereal just as much if you put the empty box on the table and poured the generic from the bag. My guess is yes, based on your original post.

  32. Carrie says:

    I find it sort of funny your using Cereal as your example of brand treatments. I personally hate the taste of most generic cereals and notice a clear difference between General Mills & Grocery store brand. (In particular their ability to get soggy faster)

    If I can’t find my favorite cereal on sale for the week I buy a box of Corn Flakes (Brand name version!) for $2.00, but there is no way I will ever eat generic cereals again.

    For most things you could swap out the brand and I wouldn’t notice, but cereal is a no way.

  33. Renee says:

    I don’t get this not lying to your child stuff. Parents tell white lies all the time but not to hurt the child. You lie when you tell him Santa is coming, you surreptitiously add veggies to brownies to add nutrition to a snack and you lie to get them to go to the dentist and tell them it won’t hurt. You, no doubt, were also handed a bunch or little white lies by your own parents -do you resent them for it? Probably not as you now understand that they were for your own good and not meant to hurt or deceive you.

  34. carrie says:

    funny discussion ~ I’ve found “cheap” brands to be healthy, my kid is not obsessed with characters on tv or foods, he eats what I tell him…I tell him this is for lunch, sometimes there is a choice and sometimes not and he asks me for healthy snacks and foods. We’re not control freaks, we’re frugal and we LIMIT the tv he watches. I also grew up in a household where everything was too much money and we never had enough (we actually did) and we are teaching our son about how we chooce to spend our money, not that we can’t affrod it.

    Allowing choices on everything can lead to a spolied, unappreciative child. I completely agree with post #24 I don’t get this not lying to your child stuff. Parents tell white lies all the time but not to hurt the child.

  35. Kristen Mary says:

    As a new mother I thought this topic was SO interesting! You have a lot of good points. When you wrote this:

    “showing him how much further his money stretches if he avoids the branded items: “You have enough change to only get one of the Cars toys, but you can get four of these other cars for the same price!” ”

    I thought that it was the perfect course of action, and it is that kind of critical thinking that will really be a tool for him in the future, and it is going to stick with your child even if he doesn’t always make the same choices that you do.

  36. Denise says:

    Give them oatmeal during the week and pancakes, eggs and the like on the weekend. I was brought up this way and so was my daughter. When she asked for sugar cereal, like she had at a friend’s house, I simply told her that we dont eat that. Now that she is a teenager, she occasionally buys herself sugar cereal from her allowance or her work money. Usually, she considers it not worth it.

  37. Sally says:

    Is your son old enough to understand a “blind taste test”? (Think “Pepsi Challenge.”) You could make it a game to see which tastes better (or if they taste the same.)

    Also, sometimes brands matter. It’s easy to choose the generic when they are essentially the same. But your son might get more joy out of the one “branded” toy versus four “unbranded” toy.

    BTW – I think adults are just as bad as kids with branding. I know a lot of smart people who would reach for the name brand without thinking.

  38. Lenore says:

    Not buying the most expensive brands? Sounds like Socialism! Oh wait, maybe we could use a little of that. LOL

  39. Treva says:

    A couple years back my daughter wanted to buy some Dora cereal just b/c it was Dora. I consented b/c it was only $1/box and claimed to have less sugar than other kids cereal. She tried it and DIDN’T LIKE IT. The next time we were at the store and she asked for it, I reminded her that she didn’t like it the last time and no I wouldn’t buy it anymore.

    So what would I have done when the cereal wasn’t on sale anymore and she did like it? The same argument I give her when I don’t buy something for myself — I’ll have it wait until it’s on sale and I have a coupon. I’ve been using this argument for some time and at age 4 it’s working to my benefit. We go down the cereal aisle and she says, “Mommy, what cereal is on sale this week?” Then I tell her. Then she says, “Do we coupons? Can I help you find the cereal?” I show her the coupons which often have pictures and she matches the pictures to help me.

    Is this system perfect? Of course not. She still wants some things that I simply won’t buy b/c they are unhealthy or cost too much without the sale/coupon combo. But the moments pass quickly b/c I rarely make a purchase for myself that doesn’t meet those same standards.

  40. Jennifer says:

    Freedom of choice for a toddler? Hogwash; to some extent anyway.

    I regularly take my children shopping with me (ages 10 and 7) and have done so for years. I have explained to them, that those brightly coloured packages, and brighly coloured cereals are full of all sorts of ingredients which will eventually make them very sick.


  41. Jennifer says:

    Freedom of choice for a toddler? Hogwash; to some extent anyway.

    I regularly take my children shopping with me (ages 10 and 7) and have done so for years. I have explained to them, that those brightly coloured packages, and brighly coloured cereals are full of all sorts of ingredients which will eventually make them very sick.

    I explained to them that the companies who advertised and sold this stuff just wanted their money, and didn’t care about their health. [Cheerios contain tri-sodium phospate which is a commercial cleaning agent]

    I also showed them the generic versions and told them that the extra money they paid for the name brands was just for pretty packaging, and that when we bought generic, then extra money was available for outings and treats.

    Further to this unbrainwashing that I do, I then give them a choice between 3 or 4 cererals that I have predetermined to be the healthiest choices. This allows them to have some input into their breakfasts while keeping the reins of control right where they belong, in the hands of the parent.

  42. Ibod Catooga says:

    Not allowing Fruity Cheerios is child abusement!

  43. Catherine says:

    Wanted to leave a brief comment (however late it is) that I tried this experiment with my son when he was younger and it still rings true today. He went to the store with me, picking out his breakfast items, whatever it may be (pop tarts, cereal) he had a certain amount of $$ he could spend and when it was gone it was gone…..if he wanted to buy the expensive brands of pop tarts, ceareal, then that was his choice…..it was to teach him the value of a dollar…..

  44. TJP says:

    We put cereal in plastic containers. We buy what Jim Gaffigan refers to as “homeless cereal” (i.e., in a bag). There was some type of cereal my son wanted and there was a bag choice that looks the same. I bought the name brand and mixed it with the generic. There can be a difference in taste.

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