The Breakfast Cereal Problem

How social media data can help if your customer isn’t the one who buys your product

General Mills is back to its old Trix again.

After a lot of deliberation and research, the food giant has decided to reintroduce artificial flavors to its popular Trix cereal.
This move is a clear about face for the brand who, just two years ago, removed artificial ingredients from many of their cereals, including Trix. So what changed? Why has General Mills decided to reverse course?
The short answer, given by General Mills itself, is that its fans, specifically and repeatedly, expressed their desire (often over social media) for Trix to return to its previous formula.

“We heard from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal,” said spokesman Mike Siemienas to The Washington Post.
The longer (and much more interesting answer) is that breakfast cereals in general, and Trix in particular, are representative examples of a larger issue that vexes thousands of brands: How do you design and market your product if the person who buys it isn’t the person who uses it?
In this post, we will look at the consumer vs. purchaser question (which we’ve dubbed “The Breakfast Cereal Problem”) through the lens of social media data, specifically focusing on three industry segments — cereal, school supplies and jewelry — to demonstrate how social listening can help brands:

  • Identify their true target audience
  • Analyze what else that audience cares about
  • Determine how they make purchase decisions

Kids go back to school, parents go back to spending

Every fall, families line up at stores to stock up on school supplies, marking back-to-school season as the second highest shopping period of the year behind the holiday season.
But the back-to-school industry has it’s own version of the Breakfast Cereal Problem: Who decides what items to buy? Do parents weigh in on the decision because they pay for it? Or do students make the decisions and parents simply cut the check?
We wanted to find out, so we analyzed millions of social media conversations (held by both parents and children) about back-to-school shopping.
It turns out, when it comes to retail back-to-school shopping, the answer is quite nuanced. There are different decision makers for different types of products. In fact, we learned that the larger back-to-school conversation is actually composed of three main topics — audience: supplies, clothes and backpacks — and each has its own audience.

While the school supply conversation is dominated by parents, the back-to-school clothing discussion is mostly among the students themselves.
And parents don’t always like the experience or even enjoy it. In fact, for most, it’s a last minute chore crammed in at the eleventh hour.

Understanding the different audiences for individual segments of the audience for your product is a start. But the next step is even more important: Figuring out what matters to both the buyer and user of your products.

Are men buying all this jewelry?

Ever wondered why NFL matches have so many jewelry ads? It’s because 75% of jewelry purchases in the US are made by men for women.
The back-to-school examples showed us why audience analysis is crucial in distinguishing between the user and the purchaser. But there is another question that goes further in customizing messaging better: What does your audience care about? When your brand has multiple audiences, and you decide to target them separately, you must fully understand their different needs and interests if you want to market to them effectively.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the jewelery market, which is primarily focused on a female consumer, but often a male purchaser.
With a market size of $35 billion, the jewelry industry in the US grows 17-22% annually. And if men form such an integral part of the market, the question brands must answer is: how to tailor the messaging specifically for men?
Social media data would suggest identifying the demographic of the audience and then narrowing down on specific interests of the group.

As we can see, most men discussing jewelry for their significant others are in the age group of 18-24 and their interests include most sports like soccer, football, basketball and some others like Starbucks and Apple.

But brands need to be wary of the pitfalls of ignoring the end user, for there is definitely a fine line between appealing to the buyer and offending the consumer.
“Every time I see one (male-targeted jewelry ad) on TV, I want to throw something at the screen…they are infuriating because they are an insult to my intelligence and emotions! I am not that easy to buy and gift-giving just isn’t that magical,” a female shopper was quoted as saying about Signet Jewelers, Zales’ parent company’s heteronormative ads.

If women are irked by jewelry ads, there is perhaps a lesson for brands to alter their messaging. While men might be the target buyers, jewelry brands might have to be more tactful to not alienate the target users. Many brands have multiple audiences for the same product — an ad for an engagement ring has to speak to both men (purchaser) and women (user). Social media analysis can help identify what pleases the user and the right medium to channel that message to the buyer.

Trix are (marketed) for kids

And now we return back to Trix, the defining example of The Breakfast Cereal Problem.
Few products are more clearly designed for children than sweet, colorful breakfast cereals. Animated mascots, vibrant colors and eye-catching shapes make it clear that breakfast cereals are meant to attract kids. But, the question remains: Are kids the ultimate decision makers in the checkout line?
When General Mills first decided to remove artificial ingredients from their lineup, they were banking on no. But the response they received from Trix fans calls this into question.
Social media data can help answer this question with data. Every day, millions of consumers post to social media platforms about shopping, nutrition and parenting. Analyzed en masse, these discussions reveal vital information about who actually makes grocery purchase decisions, and how they make them.
When we analyzed social media conversations about grocery shopping, we identified that family members are an extremely common topic in the grocery shopping discussion, amounting to 57% share of voice since 2010 and beating out other important topics like ingredients and online grocery shopping.

But for CPG brands like General Mills, this is only the beginning. We know that specific family members come up routinely in the grocery shopping conversation, but which ones? Can we narrow it down even further to determine which family members are most connected to grocery shopping decisions?

When we dug in deeper, we learned that the “shopper” in the family is (unsurprisingly) the older, parental family members (mom, wife, husband, and dad).
In social media conversations about grocery shopping, parents make up almost two-thirds of the share of voice, with moms leading the way at 37%.
And what do moms prioritize on? Healthy and nutritious food. Which usually means avoiding ingredients processed foods with artificial colors and additives. As evidenced in conversations about packing lunches, 34% of the discussion is about parents wanting to prepare a healthy lunch for kids and queries about the types of healthy snacks they can buy at the grocery stores. As a means of seeking nutritional value and trying to minimize calories, the top snacks parents prefer are fruits, vegetables, cheese, yogurt, and other ‘natural’ products.

And of late, parents are waging a particularly strong war against sugar, salt, carbohydrates, and additives.
Sugar, salt, wheat, additives and flour were the five most mentioned ingredients in the discussion of ingredients to avoid, with a steady share of voice from 2010 to 2016. Sugar and salt are discussed the most, followed by wheat, additives, and flour.

Of all these ingredients, additives and sugar are discussed most negatively.

So far, this social media data would reinforce General Mills’ initial decision to remove artificial coloring from their cereals. Parents, especially moms, make most of the grocery decisions, and they’re increasingly concerned with artificial additives.
So what’s going on here? How does this jive with their recent announcement about reverting to the original Trix formula?
This is where we get to the meat of the consumer vs. purchaser matter. Although General Mills’ original decision to produce more natural cereals aligns completely with the social media conversations surrounding grocery shopping, there is a missing part of the puzzle: Kids still have a voice in certain grocery shopping decisions.
Parents often struggle to make the right compromise between feeding their kids nutritious meals while also making sure kids actually eat them. Breakfast cereals have often been this compromise, and General Mills’ recent reversal helps illuminate this complex balancing act.
In the case of Trix, though, the message was loud and clear: Part of what makes kids love Trix is the bright colors. Almost immediately after General Mills removed artificial ingredients from Trix, they started hearing from fans (especially on social media) who wanted the Trix of old.

Certain cereals, like Trix, are especially desired by kids, so parents may be more likely to make some compromises while still balancing with other healthy foods out there. Other options in General Mills’ lineup (like Cheerios and Chex) straddle the line between adolescent and adult audiences, so it is less important for the company to design them specifically for kids.
Therefore, General Mills’ decision starts to make a lot of sense. The company knows that it has different consumer and purchaser audiences, and they know what those audiences are saying about the products, which helps them make better, more data-backed decisions about product changes and marketing strategies.

In this case, they opted to retain most of their natural cereals, while pulling a 180 with Trix because that particular item is especially important (and tailored) to kids. Ninety percent of General Mills cereals, including Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Golden Grahams, are still made with no artificial flavors or colors. General Mills knew what their multiple audiences wanted, and they are working to please both groups as best they can.
But this is just the first piece of the puzzle. With kids it’s relatively simple to know what appeals to them— cartoon mascots, bright colors, fun shapes — but it’s not always that easy. In the next example, we look at how social media data can help brands not only understand who their target audiences really are, but also what else they care about.


Social media analysis can help brands discover audiences for different products, reveal affinities of those groups and also tell us how buyers and users) interact in terms of purchase decisionmaking. In the case of General Mills, they listened to their fans, mostly kids who demanded the original colors and flavors of the cereal and the company heard that plea and brought it back.
There is a crucial difference between marketability and usability of a product and that difference is determined by purchase decisions. There is value in marketing to customers who might never use a certain product, but it is essential that it be done with keeping the intended users in mind. As brands face the challenge of crafting an optimal strategy with counterintuitive signals, social media can help address this better by identifying, grouping and analyzing audiences better.
For more on how today’s businesses can better understand their consumers and those potential customers that they might be missing out on, download our consumer insights guide below.

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