Sometimes the most significant product launch of the year is not about the level of fanfare and noise, but about the strategy of skillfully introducing a new choice for consumers and creating a new, profitable subcategory in an already busy marketplace. This is the case with General Mills and the launch of its Reduced Sugar kids’ cereals.

Research shows consumers want options when it comes to the foods they feed their kids, and General Mills acknowledged that market need by developing Reduced Sugar Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch with 75 percent less sugar than their parent brands. While initially on track with a first-to-market strategy, research and development (R&D) refinements forced the product line to be second to market behind Kellogg’s introductions of 1/3 less sugar versions of Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. In addition to trying to rise above the momentum of the Kellogg’s introduction with limited budget, the team faced several inherent challenges.

First, the company accomplished its dramatic decrease in sugar content by replacing sugar with a non-nutritive sweetener called sucralose (also known as Splenda). While sucralose was being used in other products, it was unclear what reaction consumers would have to this sweetener in a product kids enjoy by the bowlful. The potential for negative impact was high. The team anticipated the products would be compared to Kellogg’s varieties that do not contain any non-nutritive sweeteners but are higher in sugar content.

The team also faced a timing challenge: Coke and Pepsi were both introducing soft drinks using non-nutritive sweeteners. The team wanted to avoid any association between cereal and soft drinks. Finally, there were a number of other new kids’ food products entering the market that contained sucralose and General Mills wanted to be first.

Studies by third parties, sucralose creator Tate & Lyle, and General Mills revealed sugar intake is increasingly a concern for parents, and the ingredient mothers would most like to reduce in their children’s diets. Studies also revealed that a percent reduction is the most motivating way to talk to consumers, and sugar reduction of at least 50 percent was most meaningful to consumers in open-ended unaided questions. Importantly, research also showed pre-sweetened cereal brands are kids’ favorites, and moms are not willing to sacrifice taste.

On the sucralose front, brand awareness was at 78 percent, but some moms still had reservations about the safety of the sweetener and wanted to know more. That said, 70 percent of respondents liked the idea of their children’s favorite cereals sweetened with sucralose as a way to reduce sugar content. After close review of all data, the team prioritized positioning about the significant reduction in sugar and taste tests that showed consumers said the cereals have the “same great taste as the originals.”

The team also believed it would strengthen efforts to emphasize that the cereals contain the same hearty vitamin and mineral content as the originals. Additionally, the team knew it would be imperative to educate consumers about studies that show sucralose is safe and the fact that sucralose is used in many other products for children, including Pedialite.

PR reviewed coverage about sucralose and competitor products to identify reporters covering the topic and to understand media perceptions. The team strategized with the PR team from Tate & Lyle to understand the research behind the safety of sucralose, consumer acceptance of it, and the point of view of reporters who had covered sucralose in the past. This enabled the team to be very deliberate in developing positioning and messaging, and targeting reporters. PR also researched medical organizations’ perceptions of sucralose and talked with third-party dieticians from the American Dietetic Association to understand their point of view on the sweetener and General Mills’ new cereals.

General Mills’ PR department partnered with Padilla Speer Beardsley to execute a public relations program that positioned the new Reduced Sugar cereals as alternatives for parents and a new option in tandem with traditional brands. The team believed this positioning would create a new category and attract new buyers. Thorough analysis of primary and secondary research and product discovery led the plan development process.

The product is made with a blend of sugar and sucralose. Because of this, General Mills was unable to make key benefit claims related to calorie reduction or significant changes in exchange rates for diabetics. Instead, the team decided to leverage the high brand awareness and likeability of the Trix Rabbit in media materials. The team made a decided effort to focus on taste rather than the sugar reducing ingredient, sucralose. Ultimately, the team targeted media considered sucralose-friendly or neutral to reach to consumers most likely to try this product.

Padilla Speer Beardsley’s objectives included: to generate excitement among consumers and retail customers that will help the brand generate sales of the Reduced Sugar cereals at a level that is 50 percent of each cereal’s parent brand sales, generate awareness through earned media that leads to trial and repeat purchase of product by generating a minimum of 50 million media impressions among target audiences, position the launch as a positive step in consumers’ desire for good tasting, healthful choices by securing the support of a credible, credentialed dietician to speak on behalf of the product, maintain the appeal and equity of the cereals’ traditional counterparts by generating media coverage that promotes the new Reduced Sugar offerings but does not speak negatively about the parent brands.

Padilla Speer Beardsley’s strategies included to: generate third-party endorsements from print and broadcast media within trade, business and consumer (food/health) outlets to raise consumer awareness for the new offerings, secure a credible spokesperson from the health professional community to position and endorse the launch. Support from a credentialed spokesperson would enhance the value of the new offerings in the eyes of parents and proactively answer media questions about taste and the use of sucralose through media relations and taste test opportunities.

The team was able to reference studies that show sucralose is safe and used in other products for kids, and General Mills taste tests showed consumers liked the new cereals as well as the parent brands.

Though the Reduced Sugar cereals were not due to hit shelves until late July, PR distributed a BusinessWire release announcing the line-up in late June to proactively secure a place for General Mills’ new varieties in stories about Kellogg’s new offerings and round-up pieces about products using sucralose. Began pitching trade and business outlets immediately to secure coverage in these critical outlets. Business media were critical to set the tone for future coverage and lead other media who would write stories once the team began broader outreach.

Padilla Speer Beardsley created a media kit that featured the iconical Trix Rabbit and played off the ad campaign, featuring lines like, “If you don’t tell, we won’t” and “Even the Rabbit can’t tell the difference.” The kit included sample size bowls of original Trix and Reduced Sugar Trix and encouraged reporters to do their own taste test. Kits were distributed to more than 500 media outlets. Media follow-up began a week after kits were distributed.

To reach the large Hispanic audience that showed significant potential to purchase the product, the team translated media materials and distributed via personal e-mails to more than 600 Hispanic reporters. Outreach included Hispanic magazines, daily newspapers, community newspapers, TV and radio.

The PR team leveraged spokesperson Kathleen Zelman for an SMT themed around keeping kids healthy and active. Zelman offered tips to parents for incorporating healthy foods into their kids’ diets and for keeping kids “off the couch” and active. The tour used a “Back to School” theme to link with on-shelf timing of the product and leveraged this proprietary General Mills program to generate additional brand awareness by offering prize packages and brand promotional opportunities in key sales markets. Targeted “all-family” radio networks to reach key audiences.

The launch of Reduced Sugar Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch exceeded sales and awareness goals, measured by sales figures, coverage secured, and inclusion of key messages in stories.