Roxana Valdez thought her husband was making it up. In early December, Mr. Valdez began insisting he had seen a news report that his wife’s beloved French Toast Crunch was coming back after a nine-year absence. Valdez, who had joined a Facebook group about a year ago to rally support for the return of the cereal, checked with her fellow FTC fanatics and discovered he was telling the truth: General Mills had been listening. French Toast Crunch was finally back.
The cereal–maple syrup-flavored and shaped like tiny pieces of bread, as though it were baked by elfin hands—had developed a passionate cult following after it disappeared in 2006, with some fans even purchasing six-pack imported boxes from Canada, where it was still being distributed, for nearly $200. The Facebook campaign to bring FTC back in the U.S. netted over 9,000 “likes,” and according to General Mills, fans “contacted the General Mills customer service center in droves with calls and email.” This fall the company finally decided to heed the outcry.
Valdez, for one, was thrilled. “I started calling different supermarkets, but Von’s was the only store that knew what I was talking about,” she says. “They said they needed to keep restocking.” She made several trips to Von’s before obtaining a single box, which she almost lost when another customer started arguing with her over it. Now she continues checking the store every day so she can buy more of the cereal whenever it comes in. Why? She and her family “all loved it and we all missed it,” she says. And that is exactly the kind of emotional response General Mills is hoping to hear.
Breakfast cereal, that uniquely American and charmingly commercialized staple of grocery shelves, is slowly turning soggy. The long-favored morning-meal choice has been losing ground to a combination of healthier, more portable alternatives (yogurt, protein bars) and increased efforts from fast-food restaurants (yes, even Taco Bell). During an investor conference call in February 2014, Kellogg’s CEO John Bryant called it an “unconscious migration,” as though Chobani was perpetuating some kind of mass hypnosis.
“It’s a death by a thousand cuts,” says Nicholas Fereday, a senior analyst in consumer trends for Rabobank International, a banking and financial service firm for the food and agricultural industries. “Consumers drive trends. They used to want something sugary. We have a different view of food now.” Rabobank estimates that cereal consumption is declining 1% per annum; Euromonitor reports that overall sales will dip to $9.7 billion in 2014, down from $10 billion in 2013. That’s a lot of novelty-shaped corn flour going undigested.
General Mills, which has a 31% market share in the category, still has plenty to brag about. Honey Nut Cheerios is a perennial bestseller, bringing in an estimated $556 million in 2012; Lucky Charms grew its sales 3% in 2014, with adults consuming over half of the leprechaun’s inventory. As millennials age and tackle more responsibility, they’re increasingly turning to comfort food from adolescence.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and ardent consumer of Rice Krispies since childhood, believes cereal is able to take up residency in the brain due to the positive connotations with simpler times. “It’s not really about nostalgia for the cereal but about nostalgia for your past,” she says. “The cereal is just an impetus. It reminds you of sitting with your family, of having this ritual. Maybe you had a certain bowl you used. It wasn’t just a quick bite. You looked at the box. You weren’t rushed. Breakfast can be a very personal experience.”
Maybe that’s why consumers sometimes get so distraught when a favorite cereal disappears. General Mills has had a great deal of success keeping their vintage Boo-Berry, Count Chocula, and other monster-themed varieties as limited-quantity seasonal items, creating a kind of manufactured scarcity by only selling them around Halloween.
Lloyd Moritz, who runs The Breakfast Bowl blog and analyzes cereal innovations, believes absence makes the belly grow fonder. In an informal blog poll, his readers were clamoring for the return of Dunkin’ Donuts cereal, which hasn’t been seen since the 1980s. “When you find something you like and it gets yanked away, it’s basically like taking away a comfort food,” says Moritz. “That’s just the emotional appeal of cereal.”
French Toast Crunch seemed an unlikely candidate for such reverence. It was on shelves for less than a decade, featured no memorable box mascot, and created little stir when General Mills discontinued it nearly 10 years ago owing to what Brand Manager Waylon Good calls “prioritization,” which one could perhaps interpret as a euphemism for underwhelming sales. The cereal remained on shelves in Canada, prompting some semi-serious speculation that anti-French sentiment in the States at the time may have had something to do with declining sales (remember “freedom fries?”).
Good wasn’t working for General Mills when the cereal disappeared, but he was aware of the consequences: a steady swell of pestering that began almost as soon as the cereal evaporated and didn’t abate. “We got thousands of phone calls every month,” he says. “It became iconic. Within the past year, a decision to bring it back was made.” General Mills typically launches new cereals in January and June/July. With Cheerios + Ancient Grains (made with quinoa and spelt) already on tap, it made sense to balance that out with a less “serious” product.
Good says General Mills did no additional market research, instead expecting the passion of consumers to carry them into a successful re-launch. (There is some precedent for the company’s confidence: Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a close cousin, is among the industry’s top 10 offerings, with sales of nearly $300 million in 2012.) Already, fans have posted Instagram and Twitter photos featuring expressions of ecstasy at the news; superfan DeQuan Russ, who started the Facebook group, was invited to appear on Good Morning, America to discuss the grassroots movement seemingly borne out of social enforcement (we all love French Toast Crunch!), activism (let’s bring back French Toast Crunch!), and longing (I would be bitten by rabid bats for a bowl of French Toast Crunch!).
Not coincidentally, Good says advertising for the revival will mostly be limited to social reaction. A key tenet of exploiting public longing is that the ensuing celebration creates word of mouth and awareness that could be worth millions in ad dollars. “Companies have woken up to the power of social media,” Fereday says. “You can reduce costs in the marketing budget, not in the product itself.”
General Mills wasted little time in spreading the word, with Tweets heralding the return:
#Frenchtoastisback was trending nationwide the week of the announcement, with cereal evangelists touting its return and posing with boxes.
“I will take paid time off for the launch day if I have to,” wrote one fan on the Facebook page. Another declared a panic attack was imminent. Clearly, the allure of French Toast Crunch is about something more than a bowl of empty calories. In a very real sense, consumers are buying little boxes of adolescent memories.
The appreciation of cereal as a nostalgic treat is well known by its manufacturers—General Mills is even using 1990s tele-psychic staple Miss Cleo in online FTC promotions—but Fereday doesn’t think that approach can make a major difference in the category’s sales slide. “A third of these cereals are eaten outside of the breakfast time window,” he says. “But they’re still calling it ‘breakfast cereal.’ The name becomes a constraint.” Nostalgia, he believes, is just a bridge to finding the next big innovation. “You need a return to the ritual. The candy industry is a good example. It’s a reminder food can be fun and not always about kale and quinoa.”
Fereday envisions cereal as a product that isn’t just eaten with milk, but rather as a customizable base that can be doctored to taste with all sorts of toppings and mix-ins. Last summer, Kellogg’s tried this approach with a pop-up restaurant in Manhattan where visitors could add pistachios, lemon, or almond butter to their Special K. The newly opened Cereal Killer Café in London serves over 90 different vintage cereals with 20 toppings, the ideal marriage of memories and customization.
Good says General Mills has no immediate plans to resurrect any other cereals. Their French Toast Crunch isn’t due for an official national rollout until January, but some regions, like Roxana Valdez’s neighborhood in San Pedro, have already gotten shipments. It’s not an exact replica—the company inserted more “whole grains” and dropped the sugar from 11g to 9g—but Valdez doesn’t seem to mind. “It still tastes the same,” she says. “I need to work out harder because of the calories, but it’s worth it.”