New look, same great taste. Soon cereal boxes will be envelopes.

Ever since the enormous fiscal slapping we all received in 2008, I’ve noticed that food companies have been busily revamping their images in an effort to draw consumers and make ends meet. I may simply have become more sensitized to an existing practice, or efforts along these lines may have expanded greatly in the face of growing financial pressures on the market.

Cereal boxes have done the most to catch my eye, sporting a seemingly continuous stream of new boxes, or some other sign brightly plastered signaling that something has changed and that we must take notice as we wander through the aisles. Last week, I came across a box that will remain unnamed with the text “New look, same great taste” on a banner running across the top.

When I compare the new box to the old, there are a few cosmetic changes, but nothing that I could consider ground breaking or shouting for attention much more loudly than the previous box. Indeed, I am a habitual buyer of this brand, so I would have bought this cereal on that trip regardless of whether it had been packaged in a box with flashing lights being carried on the back of a panda driving a car, or if it had been in a plain, unmarked box. Cool. This ensures the company’s graphic designers have something to do from time to time, right? But there’s always a but.

But, upon closer inspection, the box was a little smaller, and contained a slightly diminished mass of cereal, without having a reduced price. Here’s the rub: in order to keep us feeling good about buying cereal despite the growing cost of delivering grain-based foods to the market, companies are reducing the quantity they sell in a box. We’re still happy to shell out our $5,99 for a box of cereal, but we are getting less and less every time we come out of the grocery store.

I get it. It’s a business. I grew up on a farm, so I appreciate the farmer’s stake in this. I’d like it if they could get a bigger cut than does the middle man, but that seems unlikely to change for a while. But you see, I like to be efficient with my time without being hypocritical about what I do. If the cereal costs more, I’m happy to pay more for the same volume, rather than have to come back to the store at an increasing rate wondering why my boxes of cereal are now lasting a few days rather than a couple weeks. Granted, food and I get along very well together, but I don’t need to get a false sense that I’m hoovering all of the grain from the Prairies to satiate my morning hunger.

For marketers to be doing this suggests that there is some pretty solid data to show that these mind games work.  I wish it weren’t the case. I fear that some day I’ll be walking out of the store with an arm full of $5,99 postage envelopes of cereal to get me through the week.

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