Special K Case Study: Moving From Indifferent to Beloved

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 all have a certain wholesome charm.  But while those brands have ‘historical equity’ it’s not really an equity that can drive sales.  I’d say these brands are in a bit of a time warp, a throwback to simpler times when Cartoons were only on Saturday mornings.

Special K was an Indifferent Brand
One lonesome Original Flavor of Cereal

One lonesome Original Flavor of Cereal

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 and dying 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 competitors were worried about Special K.

The brand idea for Special K has been connected with weight loss since the mid 80s.  The ads were focused on 110 calories–which is just a feature, not a benefit for the consumer.  And honestly, if you look at most cereals, they’ll say 120-140 calories on the box.  Here’s what the Special K ads looked like in 1996 and you’ll see why the brand was fairly flat.

This is a classic example 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.

The 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 for Life.  At the Beloved stage, demand becomes desire, needs become cravings, thinking is replaced with feelings.  Consumers become outspoken fans.

Love Curve Detailed

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.

Beloved Brands Start 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.  And under the Brand Idea are 5 Sources of Connectivity that help connect the brand with consumers and drive Brand Love, including 1) the brand promise 2) the strategic choices you make 3) the brand’s ability to tell their story 4) the freshness of the product or service and 5) the overall experience and impressions it leaves with you.  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’s the collective connection of all these things that make a brand beloved.

The Re-Birth of Special K

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.


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.   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.  


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.  



Sign up and start your free, personalized plan today. We’ll keep track of your goals, offer helpful tools and tips and keep you motivated as you work towards your best you.


Special K has also tapped into time of year occasions around New Years and spring to re-enforce the brand messages.

Some great lessons for other brands.
  • Speaking to a specific target (women 25-45) and in their voice makes you a more powerfully connected brand.
  • 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.
Take Your Own Brand Challenge and Add Some Love to Your Brand


To read more about how the love for a brand creates more power and profits:

Other Stories You Might Like
  1. How to Write a Creative Brief.  The creative brief really comes out of two sources, the brand positioning statement and the advertising strategy that should come from the brand plan.  To read how to write a Creative Brief, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write a Creative Brief
  2. How to Write a Brand Plan:  The positioning statement helps frame what the brand is all about.  However, the brand plan starts to make choices on how you’re going to make the most of that promise.  Follow this hyperlink to read more on writing a Brand Plan:  How to Write a Brand Plan
  3. Consumer Insights:  To get richer depth on the consumer, read the following story by clicking on the hyper link:  Everything Starts and Ends with the Consumer in Mind


Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center


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To reach out directly, email me at graham.robertson@beloved-brands.com

About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamrobertson1 so we can stay connected.