Saturday, 4 July 2020

An Exhaustive Analysis of the Performance of Athlete-Inspired Breakfast Cereals: 2015-2020


There was an embarrassingly long period of time when I legitimately believed that Doug Flutie was the best quarterback ever. This did not result from watching him lead underdog Boston College past Miami in 1984, but rather this epiphany came in 1998 after learning of the existence of Flutie Flakes cereal. Sure, I knew that Steve Young and Troy Aikman were pretty good, and Brett Favre even graced the cover of my copy of Quarterback Club ‘98 on the Nintendo 64, but none of those schlubs had their own cereals, or even any kind of foodstuffs inspired by them. QED. 


In my defense, I was 8 years old and delusional enough to expect non-mediocrity from Jeff George, the decidedly non-elite quarterback of my beloved Oakland Raiders that year (and thankfully no further than the 1998 season). Kids are dumb. But I feel like my logic was actually somewhat reasonable here. After several years in the food industry I can say that it takes an absurd amount of work to launch a product and you better have a decent amount of confidence that your R is going to justify that I in terms of time and resources. That means if you’re going to hitch the wagon of your boxed breakfast staple product to an athlete you should choose wisely. And for the most part manufacturers seem to have heeded that advice. Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens are among the handful of NFL players who had their own cereals at one point. Ironically enough Doug Flutie and Tommy Maddox (Tommy Gun Flakes) were probably the worst NFLers with their own cereals. 


I’m not going to provide an exhaustive overview of all the cereals inspired by NFL players. That has been done before and I can’t add anything on the subject. It’s not like there are secret boxes of Kordell Krunch or something lying around the deepest recesses of General Mills’ R&D facility; we know what is out there. Additionally, all of the cereals are pretty similar. These products are made at external manufacturing plants (i.e. there is no plant solely devoted to churning out Flutie Flakes in massive quantities) and the focus seems to be on getting decent margins and not making things too complicated. This is a sensible approach given that Flutie Flakes donated a large chunk of its profits to autism research and other athlete cereals tended to have similar charitable aims. If you’re donating most of the profits to a charity you like you might as well act like a good capitalist and maximize them. So I’ll spare you a post where I hunker down and eat years-old boxes of these cereals and reach the quite obvious conclusion that they all taste rather bland and probably tasted similarly poor when they were fresh(-er). 


Instead, what I’m interested in instead is how much these cereals actually sold while they were on the market. Thanks to my big fancy job in food I am able to pull this data and I hope this can serve as at least a semi-pleasant diversion as we all bide our time until the NFL (maybe?) comes back in a few months. 


Establishing Stuff I Have Data For


This data is all coming from Nielsen, which aggregates store scan data and allows folks like myself to use this data to understand category sales and whatnot (and write stupid posts like this). Nielsen is not going to capture everything and the date range is only going to cover June 2015 through May 2020. During this period I found sales data for the following cereals:


Flutie Flakes(?!) - Doug Flutie 

Gronk Flakes - Rob Gronkowski

Witten’s Lucky Stars - Jason Witten

Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes - Jordy Nelson


And just for fun I also found data for Chicago Cub Anthony Rizzo’s RizzOs Honey Nut Toasted Oats. 


No one is buying these cereals based on taste, so their sales are going to be a function of the player and team’s popularity and the size of the market he plays in. I would expect Gronk Flakes to have the highest sales, followed by Witten’s Lucky Stars, then Flutie Flakes (Buffalo fans are very intense) and with Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes bringing up the rear because Green Bay is simply too small a market. Given that this time period covered the Cubs winning the World Series I’d expect RizzOs to fall slightly behind Gronk Flakes but ahead of all the other football cereals. 


Here is what the sales actually looked like. Good thing I do this kind of stuff for a living because I was wildly off with my predictions:



I’m not too surprised that RizzOs sold like crazy. I lived in Chicago when the Cubs won the World Series and can attest that the city went nuts, and that insanity could certainly induce many Chicagoans to plonk down too much money for a Honey Nut Cheerios ripoff. The Gronk Flakes sales were less surprising when I learned that the product launched in 2012 and these sales just came from small batches for the starts of the 2015 and 2016 NFL seasons. Flutie Flakes had a very brief 20th anniversary edition run in December 2019 (check your math Doug, the OG Flutie Flakes came out in 1998). The big surprise to me was Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes pulling in so much money. 


How does this stack up to the category as a whole? Well I think it’s telling that most of these cereals have a charitable bent. Feast your eyes on a nice breakdown of how these products compare to the rest of the cereal category during the period: 



That’s about as “Germany-Brazil World Cup 2014” as a side-by-side cereal sales comparison can get. 


This comparison is also absurdly unfair and akin to comparing Apple Jacks and Orange Creampop Crunch. These were all limited-edition cereals circumscribed to small markets. I should really drill down to when these cereals were actually available and focus on the markets they were sold in. I’m sure there are some diehard Packer fans in Anchorage, Alaska but unfortunately they won’t be able to schlep to their local supermarket and pick up a box of Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes. These were all (sensibly) local plays.  


As I just mentioned, almost all of these cereals are limited to very small regions. 98% of Witten’s Lucky Stars sales came from the Dallas/Forth Worth metro areas, 91% of RizzO’s volume came from Chicago, and 97% of Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes came in Wisconsin. It is safe to assume that the remainder probably came from ecommerce. Flutie Flakes and Gronk Flakes appear to have driven a proportionately high volume from ecommerce, and Flutie Flakes has the added factor of catering to a pretty small market in Buffalo/Rochester. 



Witten’s Lucky Stars, RizzO’s, and Jordy’s Farm Flakes have sufficient sales to warrant a few more lines of musings about how they performed in their markets so let's get into that.


Witten’s Lucky Stars


Witten’s Lucky Stars, inspired by then-Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, launched in September 2015 and was available for most of the football season (the last month of sizable sales came in January 2016). Maybe not the best timing as he was starting to slightly decline but he was still putting up respectable numbers and the Cowboys will always figure prominently in the hearts and minds of most Texans. I especially like this product because it had the ambition to emulate the marshmallow bits (“marbits” to the cereal cognoscenti) found in the always outstanding General Mills staple Lucky Charms. Probably deleterious to its margins, but also likely made for more tasty fare than a blander Cheerios or Corn Flakes copycat. 


Witten’s cereal launched at the start of the 2015 NFL season and was basically in market for the entire regular season. There were 1,540 cereal products with over $100 in sales in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area from September 2015 through January 2016 (when Witten’s Lucky Stars did the bulk of its sales). Over this period, the tight end-inspired cereal ranked 239th on that list. That put the product slightly behind Post’s Shredded Wheat Spoon Size 16.4oz and ahead of Grape Nuts 29oz and Trix 14.8oz. Note that cereal brands are obsessed with producing a billion different sizes. Rest assured that Trix is doing massive numbers in sales (hear that, General Mills shareholders?) but this “tail” product in its portfolio was outsold by Jason Witten’s cereal in the Dallas metro while in market. It still lagged Wheaties 15.6oz (the most popular Wheaties size) but not by a humongous margin. For further context, Frosted Flakes 26.8oz was the top cereal product by sales during the period in the metro area with $1.9 million in sales. Altogether a rather strong showing for Mr. Witten. 



And actually I’m still being a little unfair to Witten (which is not particularly nice of me given that for some silly reason the Raiders decided to sign him this season). There is another way to assess in-market performance that helps out little products a little more: turns. 


I’m not going to get in the weeds of marketing metrics but turns basically control for how widely available a product is. Take the Frosted Flakes product I mentioned earlier that had the highest sales in Dallas during the period. That had 85 points of distribution in Dallas during the period while Witten’s Lucky Stars only had 7 points of distribution. “Dollar Turns” measures how many dollars a product generates for each point of distribution it has. This helps level the playing field a little bit for Witten. 


Let’s look at all products in the Dallas-Forth Worth metro with over 5 points of distribution (go any lower and things get wonky) and see where Witten’s Lucky Stars ranks for September 2015 through January 2016. Out of 825 products matching that criteria, Witten’s Lucky Stars came in 21st with $2,476 in dollar sales per point of distribution. Not bad at all. The cereal ranked in line with products from Honey Bunches of Oats, Lucky Charms, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Frosted Flakes and it absolutely crushed the biggest Wheaties size in dollar turns. 



Things get even more bananas if we isolate our data to October 2015 when Witten’s Lucky Stars reached full distribution and generated over a third of its entire total sales. During that month Witten’s Lucky Stars had the third-highest dollar turns in the entire cereal category, behind only General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios 24oz and Cinnamon Toast Crunch 49.5oz (naturally). That’s insane. It did better turns than any Honey Bunches of Oats, Frosted Flakes, or yellow box Cheerios product in Dallas that month. And you’ll notice that most of these top products are massive sizes (most boxes in grocery stores are around 11-14oz in size and the larger your product the higher the price and the easier it is to drive dollar turns). Witten’s Lucky Stars is 11.5oz and has to move a lot more units than something like a 49.5oz Cinnamon Toast Crunch box (this is what you would find at a club store like Sam’s Club or Costco) to generate the same dollars. 



There were 1,247 cereal products that sold over $100 in October 2015 and Witten’s Lucky Stars ranked 76th on that list, coming in front of Cocoa Pebbles 40oz and generating 36% more dollars than the largest Wheaties product during the month. Witten's cereal commanded a 0.32% market share in Dallas-Fort Worth in October 2015 which is very respectable given how crowded the category is. 


Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes


Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes is an ersatz Frosted Flakes with a way-too-complicated name, though it does hearken back to Nelson’s childhood working on his family's farm. It came out at the start of the 2016 season, coming off a campaign where Nelson tore his ACL in preseason and missed the entire regular season. Nelson had a very strong bounceback year in 2016 with 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns and that may have helped sustain sales a little bit. 


There were 1,582 cereals with over $100 in sales from September 2016 through January 2017 in Wisconsin metros tracked in Nielsen and Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes ranked 74th. This was behind the largest Wheaties size but in line with Frosted Flakes 10.5oz and the product did more in sales than any Cocoa Pebbles size. It also boasted a 0.35% category share in the metro during the entire period while it was in market, which was higher than Witten’s Lucky Stars in Dallas-Forth Worth during its peak sales month. The takeaway here is that Winsconsinites really enjoy their Packers, and I’m sure that the inherent dairy/cereal complementarity made Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes especially appealing to cheeseheads. 



Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes ranked 24th in dollar turns out of 838 products with over 5 points of distribution from September 2016 through January 2017 in Wisconsin markets. This is excellent (the general rule of thumb is that turning in the top third of products in a category is “good”). It turned better than any Life or Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds product in Wisconsin during that window. 


Now let’s see how Jordy Flakes did during its strongest month, October 2016. It commanded a very impressive 0.59% category share during the month, and you can be sure that if I was the Associate Brand Manager on Jordy Farm Fresh Flakes (I am almost certain such a position did not exist) I would round that sucker up to 1%. The product ranked 33rd out of 1,267 products by dollar sales in October. It also severely laid the hurt on both Wheaties products sold in Wisconsin that month, temporarily unseating the brand from “cereals with athletes on its boxes” supremacy. 



Dollar turns were especially crazy. Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes drove the fourth-highest turns of any product in the category in Wisonsin in October 2016. It trailed only 2 Honey Nut Cheerios sizes and the top Cinnamon Toast Crunch size. This put it ahead of any yellow box Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats, or Frosted Flakes product for the month. 



RizzO’s 


I don’t follow baseball enough (i.e. at all) to have an opinion on Anthony Rizzo and his on-field exploits and whether they are cereal-worthy. But I can say that Chicago went bonkers after the Cubs ended their World Series drought and RizzO’s sold very well. RizzO’s aped Honey Nut Cheerios and launched in April 2017, the following spring after the Cubs defeated the Indians in the World Series and was effectively in market during the entire 2017 season. 


RizzO’s did $304,000 in the Chicago market during the 2017 MLB season. This ranked the product 118th out of 1,615 cereals over the period. It performed in line with sizes from Apple Jacks, Cocoa Puffs, and Wheat Chex, but trailed the largest Wheaties size which generated over $427,000 in dollar sales during the period. It ranked 38th out of 764 products during the period in dollar turns. 



RizzO’s had its strongest month in May 2017. Similar to Jordy’s Farm Fresh Flakes and Witten’s Lucky Stars it took a few weeks to amass distribution, interest and sales peaked shortly thereafter and then petered out over the rest of the season. RizzO’s had a remarkably strong May 2017, seeing the 15th-highest dollar sales in the category. This put it ahead of any Reeses Puffs, Apple Jacks, or Fruit Loops product in Chicago for the month. RizzO’s also drove a 0.85% market share in May, which is quite impressive. 


RizzO’s had the sixth-highest turns of any product in Chicago in May, ahead of any yellow box Cheerios, Honey Roasted Honey Bunches of Oats, or Fruity Pebbles size during the month. 



Takeaways


I wouldn’t say you can really draw any broad conclusions from this analysis. It does not seem that the sales of novelty athlete-inspired cereals can help us solve global inequality, how to market food products to Hispanic millennials, defend against Lamar Jackson, or anything else of societal value (even when we break out the data to the market level, alas). But I guess you can say that this further supports the rather uncontroversial notion that folks in the Midwest and Texas really love their sports (and cereal products based on them) and those cereals actually sell pretty well in their individual markets.