Can a New Campaign Fix Special K?

See How the Struggling Brand Is Leaving Dieting Behind

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Special K has been anything but special for Kellogg Co. of late. The slumping cereal brand has been a major factor contributing to the company's larger sales woes, which include a sagging snacks business.

In search of a comeback Special K on Monday will launch a new campaign by longtime agency Leo Burnett that marks a significant change in direction. Rather than selling the cereal as a diet food, ads will tout what the brand sees are positive nutrition benefits, including whole grain, fiber, folic acid and Vitamin D.

The new attitude is summarized in the tagline "Eat special. Feel special." The first TV ad (above) shows women leaping in slow-motion. A print ad refers to the cereal as "nutritionally awesome."

The old line, "What will you gain when you lose?" was often accompanied by images of scales and diet challenges that put the cereal at the center of weight-loss plans. But as many food brands are discovering, consumers are sick of the weight-loss drumbeat.

"Women are moving away from the old world of dieting," Noel Geoffroy, Kellogg's senior VP for morning foods marketing, stated in an email interview. "They don't want to strictly count calories anymore. Rather, they want to eat delicious foods with positive nutrition … they want to make the calories they eat count to achieve their happy, healthy weight."

In addition to TV, the Special K campaign will be supported with in-store marketing, print, digital and PR. Kellogg declined to reveal spending plans.

Special K faces significant challenges. The brand must make its new message stick while operating in a cereal category that has been stuck in a rut as breakfast eaters explore other options like yogurt. Special K sales in the U.S. fell a staggering 14.5% from 2013 to 2014 to $365.7 million, according to Euromonitor International. Other Special K branded products -- including snack bars and cracker chips -- have also suffered as a result of the weight management positioning.

"While the challenges facing the cereal business have received significant airplay, the firm's developed-market snacks business also faces a plethora of headwinds, a portion of which stems from consumers shying away from diet-focused products toward those they perceive to be healthier overall," Erin Lash, an analyst for Morningstar, stated in a recent report.

CEO John Bryant on an earnings call in February alluded to Special K's weakness as contributing to the company's disappointing U.S. snack performance last year marked by a 2.4% sales drop. He blamed "consumer trends away from weight-management brands," but vowed that "we're beginning the investment necessary to stabilize this business and return it to growth." In total, Kellogg for 2014 reported that comparable net sales declined 2%.

The comeback plan for Special K cereal and snacks includes new varieties and reformulations. For instance, Special K Cracker Chips are being touted as "tastier than ever" with a "crispier" and "crunchier" chip. Special K cereal has launched new varieties including a gluten-free version. A new "protein" line includes a "cinnamon brown sugar crunch" flavor whose pieces are in rounded-square shape, marking the first time the cereal has moved beyond the flake.

Protein has been a major food buzzword of late. But for Special K, the messaging marks a return to its distant past. When the brand debuted in the 1950s one early print ad declared Special K as "more than a flake or a puff -- a wonderfully delicious way to get your protein."

In later years, the brand evolved into a diet food. And it worked for a significant period of time. In 2008, Ad Age reported on the success of the brand promoting the "Special K Challenge" online, which encouraged women to eat two bowls of Special K every day for two weeks. Sales jumped 17% in the first 10 months of that year. Ads sometimes showed women in bathing suits, suggesting that a shapely body was the reward for taking the challenge.

But with the new campaign, the brand will leave the model-like figures behind. Spots feature "women who reflect what the people who eat our food actually look like," according to Kellogg statement describing the campaign. "Women today want food that is part of an every-day healthy lifestyle, not just a quick fix. They want information. They want to know what's in their food. They want to see what's in their food." The new 30-second ad delivers a fact every five seconds, according to the brand.

Virginia Lee, an analyst with Euromonitor, in a recent report described the broader trend this way: "Americans are increasingly thinking about food in the context of healthy eating, not just reducing calories. They are looking for 'food plus,' whereby the food offers additional health benefits beyond serving as fuel. Reduced fat and calorie food is no longer desirable if that is all that it does, especially if the taste is not good."

Analysts have applauded Kellogg for taking the shift in tone, but remain skeptical on how much the changes will boost sales, at least in the near term. While the company is "working to reposition the brand … we don't expect the efforts to yield improvements for several quarters," Ms. Lash said in a recent report.

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