Rice Krispies Snap, Crackle and Pop characters have been around for 82 years

Rice Krispies' Snap, Crackle and Pop characters have been around for 82 years

The marketing of breakfast cereals to children has become a delicate issue for food manufacturers like Kellogg. As a result, responsible marketing commitments feature prominently in the company's sustainability strategy, as Kellogg chief sustainability officer Celeste Clark explains.

Marketing to children has become an extremely sensitive issue for food companies in recent times and arguably no sector has come under greater pressure than the cereals category.

While all manner of foods have been marketed specifically at children over the years, cereal manufacturers were among the first to do this, with devices such as cartoon characters, free toys and picture cards and competitions. As a result, these brands have had a longer and closer dialogue with child consumers than any other category except perhaps for confectionery.

In this regard, Kellogg is undoubtedly the 'daddy'. Its cartoon characters, in particular Snap, Crackle and Pop for Rice Krispies and Tony the Tiger for Frosties, could be described not only as brand marketing icons but as cultural ones.

Snap, Crackle and Pop first appeared on Rice Krispies packets some 82 years ago. When children today think of this cartoon threesome and put their ear to their cereal bowl they are likely to be sharing an experience not only with their parents, but quite possibly with their great-great-grandparents.

Tony the Tiger is a slightly later creation, though has proved equally durable. An attempt to replace him with Katy the Kangaroo in the 1950s failed miserably - an early example perhaps of 'little people power'. Kellogg first put inserts in its cereal packets in 1949.

So much for the cultural history. Today, Kellogg still markets cereals aimed at children but in a quite different market environment from the 1930s.

The child-focused marketing strategies of cereal manufacturers have been heavily criticised by campaigners who question both the nutritional value of products that become the subject of 'pester power', and whether children should be targeted at all by brand marketing.

It is no surprise therefore that the issue of responsible marketing features so prominently in Kellogg's sustainability strategy.

The company's chief sustainability officer Dr Celeste Clark points out that the company was one of the first to put nutritional information on-pack, as far back as the 1930s.

"Kellogg has long been committed to responsible marketing and to providing consumers the information they need to make informed dietary choices for themselves and their families," says Clark, adding that in 2005 the company "pioneered" the use of Guideline Daily Amounts front-of-pack nutritional labelling.

Earlier this year, Kellogg joined with other US food and beverage manufacturers and retailers in the new Nutrition Keys front-of-pack labelling scheme.

Clark says it is the company's policy not to market to children younger than six. Leaving aside the thorny question of whether marketing aimed at slightly older children might also appeal to those under six, Clark stresses that its marketing to children aged six to 11 is governed by its Global Nutrient Criteria, standards based on a "broad review of scientific reports" relating to per-serving thresholds for calories, fats, sodium and sugar. In January, 2009, Kellogg ceased advertising to children under 12 those products that do not meet these standards.

With regard to its general marketing activity around its children's cereals, including the use of what Kellogg describes as its 'equity characters', a term which perhaps does more to rob Snap, Crackle and Pop and Tony the Tiger of their enchantment than any amount of activist opprobrium, Clark states:

"We have a longstanding commitment to responsible marketing, including the use of our equity characters. Our equity characters are part of our brands' recognition and we use them appropriately and responsibly."

Celeste Clark, Kellogg chief sustainability officer

Crucially, she points out that the characters can be "effective messengers on health and wellness", for example through its Frosted Flakes "Earn Your Stripes" programme, which encourages children to exercise. "Responsible marketing is an important and ongoing conversation in which we are actively engaged."

As a result of its responsible marketing commitments, the company says it decreased spend on advertising to children under 12 by 50% in the US between 2006 and 2009. In Canada, spending on advertising to under-12s decreased by 44% from 2008 to 2009. Kellogg's corporate responsibility programmes are clearly aimed at reinforcing the family-friendly image, evoked in the marketing of its children's cereals.

It runs programmes to encourage physical activity among children, including a scheme in Denmark in which some 200 schools participated. The company has also undertaken initiatives to help renovate school playing-fields in Ireland and the US.

Kellogg also works collaboratively with others on the issue of health and nutrition, Clark points out. "We are passionate about helping consumers combat the serious issue of obesity and recognise that we can have a greater impact working collaboratively." It supports the EPODE programme in France, Spain and Belgium, and was a founder member of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation in the US.

In addition to work on reformulation, Clark includes in her highlights from the company's 2010 corporate responsibility programme Kellogg's Share Your Breakfast initiative, aimed at increasing awareness around the importance of breakfast.

In partnership with Action for Healthy Kids, Kellogg provided 1m school breakfasts to US children. Some 90 new breakfast clubs were formed in the UK and the country's first-ever national Breakfast Club Summit to share best practices for launching, running and sustaining a breakfast club was held.

"This initiative is one example of how we hope to increase access to school breakfast for kids, something we're very passionate about," says Clark.

The connection with breakfast is significant. Enormous strides in nutrition science have been made since Snap, Crackle and Pop first came on the scene but the importance of eating a good breakfast has been a pillar of good dietary health for many years.

In today's market there is far greater scrutiny of the nutritional value of all foods. But because breakfast is seen as so central to dietary health, particularly for children, even greater scrutiny will continue to fall on breakfast cereal brands, particularly because they have always had such a direct link with their young consumers. The reformulation challenge therefore features prominently in Kellogg's corporate responsibility programme.

"We are on a continuous journey to improve the nutrition credentials of our products without compromising taste or quality," says Clark. "As detailed in our Corporate Responsibility Report, we've recently improved the nutrition credentials of hundreds of our products worldwide by reducing sugar, sodium and fats, and increasing fibre and whole grain."

For example, between 2007 and 2010, Kellogg reduced the average amount of sodium per serving in its ready-to-eat cereals in its core markets, namely the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, and Australia, by 13%, Clark states.

Any parent who has used the 'helicopter' ploy to persuade a reluctant infant to eat knows how helpful it can be to make children's mealtimes recreational. Companies like Kellogg have always understood this too and while they have exploited the fact commercially, parents over the decades have probably appreciated the benefits of attractively packaged and imaginatively presented breakfast foods.

In spite of more intense activist pressure, parents will probably continue to appreciate this, but at the same time the nutritional standards which these foods have to meet are only likely to rise.