Joann Flicek watches a bagging machine for Frosted Mini Spooners at MOM… (Richard Sennott, MCT )
MINNEAPOLIS — If Toucan Sam heard what Malt-O-Meal is up to, it would throw him for a loop. It would make the Honey Nut Cheerios bee buzzing mad.
The Minneapolis company has quietly notched impressive gains in the otherwise lumbering cold cereal market by mastering the knockoff. Its Tootie Fruities bear a striking resemblance to Froot Loops. As for its Honey Nut Scooters — where have we seen that classic oat ring before?
Malt-O-Meal, recently rechristened MOM Brands Co., has built a lucrative cold cereal niche by delivering more product for the money than similar cereals made by industry titansGeneral Mills Inc.andKellogg Co.
"Once people try us, we have a very loyal group of consumers," said Chris Neugent, MOM Brands' chief executive.
It's a growing group. From 2001 to 2011, Malt-O-Meal's annual sales climbed to about $750 million from $300 million. In 2009, it opened a cereal factory in North Carolina, a $275-million project. And in the last decade, it has spent $100 million on boosting production capacity and efficiency at a big cereal plant in Northfield, Minn.
Not bad for a firm associated for decades with just one product, the hot wheat concoction known as Malt-O-Meal.
The 93-year-old company, owned by descendants of its founder, still makes its namesake product. But hot cereal makes up only about 10% of total sales, and most of that comes from Better Oats, a fast-growing line of instant oatmeal.
Several newer brands like Better Oats and Mom's Best Naturals — cold cereals made with natural ingredients — led the company in February to change its corporate name to MOM Brands.
The rebranding also reflects a change in the company's strategy. A decade ago, half of its sales came from private-label cereal, products carrying the brands of supermarket chains. Today that's down to 20%.
The core business is Malt-O-Meal-branded cold cereal — Tootie Fruities, Marshmallow Mateys and the like — that took off in the 1980s.
Cold cereal is a huge business, generating about $9 billion in U.S. sales in 2011, according to Mintel International. But it's a mature, slow-growing business. And General Mills and Kellogg together own more than 60% of the market.
Malt-O-Meal has been gaining ground, though, particularly on the No. 3 and 4 players, Post Holdings Inc. andPepsiCo Inc.'s Quaker division.
Its share of the U.S. cold cereal business as measured in pounds jumped from 3.1% in 2011 to 9.6% last year, fourth among major cereal makers and just a bit behind Post, according to Nielsen Co. data provided by MOM Brands.
Consumers usually pay about 20% to 25% less for a pound of Malt-O-Meal-branded cereal than they do for a pound of its rivals' products, Neugent said.
Neugent, Malt-O-Meal's CEO since 2008, makes no excuses for the knockoff approach. "We're not the first ones to come in and have similar products."
The strategy doesn't always sit well with its competitors, though. "We're not on their Christmas card list, I will say that," Neugent said.
It's not surprising the cereal colossi get irked. "You can make the argument that Malt-O-Meal is free-riding off the advertising" of General Mills and Kellogg, said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
General Mills and Kellogg did not comment for this story.
While heavy advertising greases cereal sales for the heavyweights — Toucan Sam has been an animated celebrity since the 1960s — Malt-O-Meal's ad budget can be measured in spoonfuls, not bowls. Minimal marketing expenses are crucial to maintaining its lower prices.
Kellogg and General Mills spend as much as 8% of their total cereal sales on advertising, said Rick Shea, owner of Shea Marketing, a consulting firm in Chanhassen, Minn.
Malt-O-Meal spends less than 1%, said Shea, who was the company's chief marketing officer from 2004 to 2006. Minuscule would be the best word to describe Malt-O-Meal's ad spending over the last two years as measured by advertising tracker Kantar Media.
"I would love to advertise our products, but if I did, I'd have to raise our prices," said Neugent, who is no stranger to heavy-duty food marketing. Before arriving at Malt-O-Meal in 2001, the Texas native worked at PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division and was for a time its Doritos brand manager.
At MOM Brands, Neugent runs "a very lean organization," Shea said. "Its strength is on the manufacturing side, not the sales and marketing side."
Hughlett writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune/McClatchy.