Ho-ho-hoping for Green Giant comeback

General Mills is betting on nostalgia to sell consumers on Cheerios and vegetables.

By Jonathan Berr Sep 18, 2012 4:18PM
Credit: General MillsThe Jolly Green Giant, which Advertising Age considers the No. 3 brand icon of the 20th century, is making a comeback after being relegated to the background for years, along with a lesser-known mascot known as The Cheerios Kid.

General Mills
(GIS), the corporate parent of both brands, is making a bet on nostalgia that might just work. Any effort to make healthy eating fun should be applauded, especially considering the fact that childhood obesity rates have almost tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that more than a third of Americans are obese, a frightening statistic.

Like most consumers, I hadn't realized that the Green Giant, who seemed to be ubiquitous when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, had been fading for a while. Advertising Age, which broke the story, reported that General Mills had "underleveraged" the mascot for reasons that weren't clear. That's about to change thanks to brand manager Yumi Clevenger-Lee, whom the trade publication says wants to make the icon a star again.   

The 21st century giant is more kid friendly (the new logo shows him smiling) and will encourage young consumers to take "one giant pledge" to eat one more vegetable a day.     He will appear in TV ads and on Facebook (FB). It's unclear what role the Green Giant's helper Sprout, who did the talking in the old ads, will play in the new campaign. The company still sells Sprout merchandise. 

The Cheerios Kid, whose heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, can be seen in a new spot discussing the health benefits of Cheerios -- a subject that got General Mills in hot water with the FTC a few years ago. Perhaps his return will appeal to aging Baby Boomers.

The resurrection of the Green Giant and the Cheerios Kid comes as activists pressure food companies to retire icons, such as Ronald McDonald and Cap'n Crunch, associated with selling less healthy fare to kids. Nostalgia, though, is a powerful force even though it sometimes makes people pine for "good old days" which never existed. People continue to buy candy cigarettes because it reminds them of a simpler time even though studies have shown they encourage kids to smoke.

General Mills, whose shares have slumped about 3% this year, is hoping that the Giant and Kid will evoke more than a sense of nostalgia. Profits are being squeezed at food companies thanks to rising commodity costs and cash-strapped consumers showing a growing interest in cheaper, private-label brands. The company is due to report quarterly earnings Sept. 19. 

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks.  Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.



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