Is Wheaties Dying A Slow Death?
By Darren Rovell , CNBC Sports Business Reporter
NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- After nearly a nine-decade run, the "Breakfast of Champions" is on the ropes.
Sales of Wheaties are down double digits for another year and the tailspin shows no signs of stopping. A brand that, in the 1960s, accounted for 6.5 percent of all of the cereal sold in the United States, now only has slightly more than 0.5% of the market.
"Wheaties had a clear brand identity," said Lloyd Moritz, who, as editor of The Breakfast Bowl , a blog dedicated solely to cereal, just might be the nation's foremost expert on the topic. "The problem was they rested on their laurels."
As other cereals evolved, new takes on the whole wheat flakes brand didn't catch on -- from Honey Frosted Wheaties in the mid-90s to more robust versions like Wheaties Energy Crunch in 2001 to Wheaties Fuel, which, despite big endorsements from Peyton Manning , Albert Pujols and Kevin Garnett, hasn't gained any traction in the two years it has been on the market.
Excluding sales at Walmart(WMT) and convenience stores, Wheaties Fuel sales numbered a measly $5.2 million over the past year, according to SymphonyIRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
In total, yearly Wheaties sales have brought in $38.7 million, down 18.6% versus a year ago. Total boxes sold are under 10 million, down 22.5%, meaning roughly 4,000 fewer orange boxes are being sold in the U.S. per day than were being sold just three years ago.
Industry insiders have speculated that Wheaties, like Corn Flakes, wasn't healthy enough for the Fiber One crowd and wasn't bad enough for those who wanted to eat Lucky Charms or Frosted Flakes.
"It's OK to be healthy, but they just haven't stood out," Moritz said. "Cheerios has successfully rolled out new flavors and Special K has latched on to fitness consumers and the women's market."
Wheaties parent company, General Mills (GIS) ,reported earnings last Wednesday, with shares trading down on the news that consumers were buying less because of the higher retail prices to make up for higher commodity costs. Stars of the portfolio of General Mills, which owns 32 percent of the U.S. cereal market, including Honey Nut Cheerios, Peanut Butter Multigrain Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, have helped stem further losses.
Executives with General Mills declined to comment on this story.
Wheaties was invented in 1922 by a health clinician in Minnesota, who accidentally spilled a wheat mix on a stove. When the product hit retail, it was sold by General Mills predecessor Washburn Crosby as Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. The name was soon changed to Wheaties.
Wheaties was one of the first brands that made its name on sports marketing. In 1934, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig was the first to appear on a Wheaties box. Over the years, standout athletes and champions in every sport had their image on a box, including Michael Jordan, who was featured on a record 18 different boxes throughout his career.