Breakfast throwback: General Mills attempts to woo millennials with return to ’80s cereal recipes

General Mills is banking on nostalgia to entice ‘80s kids to buy Cocoa Puffs, Golden Grahams, Cookie Crisp and Trix

General Mills is returning to ‘80s formulations of Cocoa Puffs, Golden Grahams, Cookie Crisp and Trix.

Is nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons powerful enough to compel you to buy a box of sugary breakfast cereal? General Mills is banking on it. The U.S.-based food company has announced “the permanent return” to 1980s recipes in a bid to woo millennials to the bowl.

General Mills reformulated four of its cereals — Cocoa Puffs, Cookie Crisp, Trix and Golden Grahams — which are available at retailers across the U.S. The company has yet to confirm whether the “retro recipes” will be available in Canada.

The throwback versions, General Mills said in a statement, feature resurrected flavours and shapes. Cocoa Puffs has gone back to a “more chocolatey taste”; Cookie Crisp a “more chocolate chip cookie taste”; Trix has its original six fruit shapes; and Golden Grahams includes actual honey once again.

The classic recipe for Cocoa Puffs, General Mills says, has a
The classic recipe for Cocoa Puffs, General Mills says, has a “more chocolatey taste.” Photo by Getty Images

“Our fans crave a taste of nostalgia — and, while these four cereals have always remained popular, we’ve answered their requests and brought back the taste they remember from childhood,” said Jennifer Jorgensen, vice president of marketing for General Mills cereal.

Part of the nostalgia of Saturday morning cartoons and the accompanying bowl of sugary cereal is that it was just one day a week, explains Paul Moore, a sociology professor at Ryerson University who studies the history of pop culture. Following five days of hard work at school, it was a treat — one children often put together themselves as their parents slept in.

“That bowl of cereal is probably the first way many kids fed themselves a ‘meal,’ says Moore. “Pour the cereal and get the milk — maybe only a little bit of it spilled — turn on the television and you’re set to go.”

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The pandemic, which coincided with many millennials becoming parents, has only made parenting more difficult, he adds. By “sinking their feet into the nostalgia of comfort food,” General Mills’ campaign comes at a time when millennials are thinking back to their youth and the freedom they once felt. It’s as much about comforting themselves as it is their own children.

“On the one hand, their own freedom now doubly lost as young parents and in the pandemic,” says Moore. “And on the other hand, as parents thinking of their own childhood as they’re now in this moment of crisis with their own kids at home.”

The drive-in component of General Mills' campaign
The drive-in component of General Mills’ campaign “is also partly reclaiming the fun of watching something on our screens at a moment where we’re trapped in our screens,” says Paul Moore. Photo by Getty Images

Brands have increasingly turned to sweetness as a means of heightening nostalgia and attracting consumers, Food Dive reports, particularly in targeting millennials. Trying to reposition it as a snack food, cereal makers have launched “indulgent” varieties including Hostess Honey Buns, Peeps and Sour Patch Kids. And the pandemic has some advertising and marketing specialists asking if hard times will spur more wistful attempts across products.

Evoking positive memories of decades past can provide an emotional escape from the present — while simultaneously making people more open to brand messaging. Millennials have lived through financial crises before, and despite being better educated, CNBC reports, they earn 20 per cent less than baby boomers did.

“Now we have this moment where at the same time that millennials are, as a generation, new parents — settling down, permanent jobs, finding their midlife plateau — we have another crisis,” says Moore. “The comfort of eating nostalgically is one way of asserting some control over their circumstances when they’ve grown up, as a generation, having so little control.”

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Doubling down on the ‘80s flashback, General Mills has enlisted Saved by the Bell’s Mario Lopez to host a cartoon drive-in at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Oct. 3 at 10 a.m. PT (the show will also be available to stream online).

This bizarre launch of putting people in their cars to watch television at a drive-in for the sugary Saturday morning cereals is just throwing all of the 2020 media signifiers in a bowl and pouring milk on it.

Paul Moore

With the event, Moore highlights, the company is tapping into several different generations at once (“from boomers all the way down to Gen Z”): drive-ins from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Saturday morning cartoons from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wrapped up in this broad-strokes nostalgia is an attempt to reinvent some of the things we’ve missed during the pandemic.

“We’ve lost sleeping in. We’ve lost Saturdays being different from workdays. We’ve lost movies being different from television. And we’ve lost watching TV for fun as being different from watching a screen for work. So this bizarre launch of putting people in their cars to watch television at a drive-in for the sugary Saturday morning cereals is just throwing all of the 2020 media signifiers in a bowl and pouring milk on it,” says Moore, laughing.

Nostalgia can be a powerful marketing tool, Food Dive reports, especially in the cereal category. Sales have been on a downward trend since 2009, with millennials in particular shrugging them off. According to the L.A. Times, 39 per cent of the cohort told the market research company Mintel they found cereal unappealing because it required washing a bowl after they were done.

In Canada, the only cereal category to experience growth last year was hot cereals, according to Euromonitor International. The sweeteners and synthetic colours in ready-to-eat breakfast cereals put them at odds with Canadian consumer trends, “which favour natural products that are healthy, nutritious and low in artificial ingredients.” Practically speaking, eating breakfast on the go (or skipping it altogether), had become more appealing than sitting down at a table with a bowl and spoon.

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