Eye to eye with Tony the Tiger

By DAN BOWEN // It’s a fact: Kids love cereal. The sweet and satisfying crunch, paired perfectly with a large splash of milk, is enough to get even the laziest of children out of bed in the morning. Parents love cereal, too – the fiber and whole grains offering a fair compromise to the sugar content. And of course, marketers also love cereal – the $10 billion U.S. breakfast cereal market is an easy win for ad execs.

Most parents are no strangers to cereal marketing tactics. It’s the cool cartoon characters, including Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, the Silly Rabbit, Toucan Sam and Sonny the Cuckoo Bird. It’s the prize waiting at the bottom of the bag. It’s the games printed on the back of the box. What kid could ask for anything more?

But there’s something more to marketing cereal to children, something so subtle, you probably never even noticed it. There’s more to the box of cereal on the shelf at the grocery store than you think, and a new study from Cornell University aims to set the record straight.


Dan Bowen: Psychology with snap, crackle, pop.

The study examined 57 different children’s cereal boxes, and on 51 of them, the characters on the boxes had their eyes angled to connect at 48 inches and under. Or squarely at the height of kids. Why? Because the characters are making eye contact with children.

According to Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, cereal box characters locking eyes with children builds trust, fosters brand loyalty and triggers the urge to buy. Best of all, it’s not something children, and even most adults, can decipher as marketing.

By the same logic, the study examined 65 different adult cereal boxes to find their characters gazing upward or straight ahead.

In another experiment, the study examined 63 college-aged individuals randomly given different Trix cereal boxes. The ones with the rabbit making direct eye contact increased brand trust by 16 percent and brand loyalty by 10 percent.

Now we know the real reason grocery stores place children’s cereals on the mid to lower-level shelves and adult cereals on the higher shelves.

More than anything, the study proves how our psychology impacts our purchasing decisions. And just about any business can use human psychology to its advantage. In the world of web design and digital marketing, for example, we use it on a daily basis.

Visitors make judgments about the quality of a website in only a few seconds. Anything from poor design, content and images to a weak message can spoil those first crucial moments of trust.

A quick lesson in marketing psychology can help design companies build a profitable and trustworthy website.

Social psychology – the way we interact with others – is the psyche’s desire for group validation, community and belonging. Humans love to reciprocate positive actions, so even a small gift – an ebook, discount coupon or free sample – can help online businesses establish enough trust to trigger a positive response from a potential customer.

Website design companies can also play on the human brain’s incredible ability to recognize patterns. Consistent colors, image styles, fonts and page layouts all make a huge impact on trust and brand loyalty.  Smart web design companies use it to their advantage.

Color psychology is equally important as different colors and color combinations trigger different moods and behaviors. The same is true for text and graphics, the emotional triggers that drive visitor behavior. There’s simply more to web design than meets the eye.

A visual hierarchy is a smart, simple way to guide visitors from one prominent item to the next, hitting all the important information along the way. The human psyche is naturally drawn to faces and sight lines, along with objects that stand out. Use this to your advantage, complete with a heat map to guide the way.

But remember: The human brain is also overwhelmed by choices. Too many choices make visitors feel claustrophobic. More options often means more time to make a decision. In the web design world, negative space is a great hidden marketing tool to frame important content and more importantly, limit choices.

There may not be many psychology degrees on the Kellogg’s marketing team. But like many of the most successful marketers, the cereal company embraces psychology to attract and engage consumers, and compel them to buy.

The next time you walk down the cereal aisle – with Tony the Tiger staring at your kid – consider how your businesses can use psychology to its own marketing campaign advantage.

Bowen is founder and CEO of Minneola-based Bowen Media. Contact him with questions or comments via dan@bowenmedia.com.