A Charm’s Life

A Charm’s Life – Lucky Charm’s cereal

Karen Wright

It takes a few rocket scientists to make great cereal these days

MANY A CULTURAL ICON has had a home in Minneapolis, Minnesota: Mall of America, Mary Tyler Moore, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the Artist formerly known as Prince. It’s a city that means different things to different folks. To a starstruck breed of cereal lovers, for example, Minneapolis means Lucky Charms. For 35 years, Lucky the Leprechaun and his parti-colored product have thrived in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley on General Mills Boulevard just south of Betty Crocker Drive. And for 35 years the cereal’s popularity has remained undiminished. The oat-and-marshmallow medley is one of General Mills’s top sellers, and one of the longest-running success stories in kids’ cereals.

But unlike other august brands–Cheerios, say, or Corn Flakes–Lucky Charms owes much of its success to continual reinvention. Over the decades, the marshmallow bits have undergone radical transformations in shape, size, and color. At first it was just pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers; they were magically delicious. Then the mutants began to appear. Blue diamonds. Purple horseshoes. Red balloons. Swirled whales. A rainbow. A snowman. A pot of gold. The Eiffel Tower. The frosted oat nuggets have stayed the same all along. But that plain and unchanging substrate has only served to highlight the jarring mutability of the so-called marbits. What mysterious forces are shaping the evolution of Lucky Charms?

In the Bisquick conference room at General Mills headquarters, assistant marketing manager Patricia Chang offers an explanation that owes as much to Adam Smith as to Charles Darwin. She’s brought along a box of Lucky Charms featuring the cereal’s latest permutation: tiny marbit charms in saturated colors and substandard sizes that the company launched last March. “Whenever we have a new event like this, we see anywhere between a 10 to 20 percent bump in sales,” says Chang. It’s survival of the fittest at its finest.

And fitness in food, as in any other population, depends on the diversity of the gene pool. The food engineers at General Mills first clued in to this dynamic in 1975, when blue diamonds were introduced to the “standard mix” and sales of the cereal jumped 31 percent. Adding purple horseshoes in 1983 increased sales another 25 percent. When red balloons joined the party in 1989, sales increased again. Each time, there were permanent gains. In 1990, General Mills chairman and chief executive Bruce Atwater used these figures to challenge economists’ theory of product “life cycles,” according to which every product is born, grows, matures, and dies in a grim and inevitable are of sales.

A seasoned researcher cites three factors for the cereal’s unique appeal. “It’s the marshmallows, it’s the marshmallows, it’s the marshmallows,” says Jim Geoffrion, a department head at the General Mills technical center. To determine which marbit designs kids find most enticing, Geoffrion explains, the market research department conducts frequent “concept-ideation” studies. A general principle has emerged. More is better. Bright colors are better than subdued pastels, and a greater variety of designs in each package is better than the measly four that launched the cereal.

Today’s youths also prefer patterned charms in multiple colors. Satisfying that preference requires manufacturing technology that was perfected only in the last decade. The basic recipe for the marbits is uncomplicated: sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin. The ingredients are melted together and whipped to a foamy consistency, then squeezed out, or extruded, in strips of specified shapes that are cut into individual pieces and dried slowly at low temperatures. The colors are added during the roam phase, before extrusion, and the shapes are determined by the extrusion dies. The trick lies in getting those patterned marbits that children find so appealing. Separate streams of colored foams have to be “co-extruded”–squeezed out through the dies together at exactly the same rate, just as the colors in striped toothpaste come out of the tube in sync. That takes some doing because, unlike toothpaste, the marshmallow foam is compressible, and controlling the flow rate of a compressible foam is a problem more worthy of rocket science than food science.

In fact, the flow-rate problem constrains the kinds of&signs that Geoffrion and his crew can execute in their marshmallow medium. It is relatively easy to make multicolored marbits with equal volumes of each color, squeezed out at the same rate. A lower-volume color accent–such as a smile on the man-in-the-moon marbit–requires a different flow rate during extrusion, and the only thing harder than stabilizing compressible fluids at the same flow rate, says Geoffrion, is synchronizing compressible foams with varying flow rates.

Within these daunting limits, General Mills has achieved an impressive expansion in the complexity and diversity of the marbit community. In addition to tweaking the standard mix every few years, the company concocts limited-edition medleys, like the “tiny” campaign, two or three times a year. Themes have included charms shaped like Olympic torches and medals, seasonal tokens such as mittens and snowmen, and an around-the-world promotion featuring Egyptian pyramid- and Statue of Liberty-shaped marshmallows, among other wonders. In contrast, the oat pieces–bells, fishes, arrowheads, clovers, and crosses–haven’t changed since the cereal was invented in the early 1960s.

The inspired notion of combining marshmallows with a whole-oat cereal came to former vice president and product developer John Holahan in 1963. Holahan was brainstorming in the aisles of his local super market one day when he came upon the orange Marshmallow Circus Peanuts that were among his favorite confections. He took a bag back to the lab, cut up the “peanuts,” and sprinkled them over a bowl of Cheerios. They “ate just right,” Holahan recalls. “I knew we had a winner, a concept that had great promise.”

An advertising agency suggested a charm-bracelet concept, which was later changed to the leprechaun motif. The charms themselves were a technical challenge from the start. No one in the food industry had ever tried to make small, intricately shaped marshmallows. To form the shapes, the marbit foam would have to be extruded, rather than baked in flat sheets as all marshmallow products were at the time. The kind and amount of gelatin in the formula had to be adjusted so that the marshmallow strips would hold their shapes after being formed. An inordinate amount of starch would be necessary to keep the pieces from sticking together after they were cut. And they had to have a much lower moisture content than ordinary marshmallows. In fact, they had to be as dry as the surrounding cereal to prevent it from getting soggy in the box. The pieces couldn’t be baked–a process that tends to seal in moisture–but would have to be dried slowly to permit desiccation. Chemists and candymakers from General Mills and Kraft collaborated for months to devise the proprietary formula and drying technology that are still used today The resulting marbits have the texture of candy pumice and make up over 25 percent of a box’s volume.

Now, more than three decades later, Lucky Charms is General Mills’s number-three seller, bested only by Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. Among presweetened children’s cereals, it is number one, with more than $150 million in annual sales. The product has been a survivor. But the history of Lucky Charms marbits, like any evolutionary record, has its share of dead ends. Some of the marbit shapes have gone extinct. Blue diamonds got axed from the standard mix in 1995, as more complex and colorful pieces gained a competitive advantage. The yellow moons became blue instead. Soon the venerable orange star will be permanently replaced with a sprightly orange-and-white shooting star that first invaded the mix several years ago. In fact, from the founding population of marbits, only the pink hearts and green clovers remain.

Yet for every marbit extinction, General Mills engineers have a dozen new designs that will speciate on supermarket shelves in years to come. Though he’s loath to talk about concepts in development, Geoffrion agrees, when asked directly, that glow-in-the-dark charms would be a brilliant addition. Can it be done? “Not yet,” he says with a nervous laugh. But when it can, Lucky Charms could be the first midnight snack to provide its own illumination.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group