Brand Morphology: How Breakfast Cereal Got Its O


Brand names are part of the language. As such, they are living, growing, evolving things. Language changes over time, with new words arising and meanings shifting. Brand names, as part of the language, follow many of the same patterns. This interplay of linguistics and marketing creates both challenges and opportunities.

“Os” Means Breakfast

If I tell you I had “Sickly-Sweetie-Os” for breakfast, you know instantly I had breakfast cereal. Not only that, you can surmise that the cereal I ate had roughly an oval shape. Even though that’s a made-up brand, “Os” means breakfast cereal. Attach “Os” at the end of almost anything, and you’ve got yourself a brand-name for breakfast cereal.

There are many real-world examples of this. For instance, Trader Joe’s calls its store brand “Joe’s O’s.” There are Urkel-Os and C3POs. There are even fictional examples. In The Simpsons, Bart likes to eat Frosted Krusty-O’s.

There’s a term in linguistics for this sort of meaning-bearing suffix or prefix: it’s a “productive morpheme.” You can use it, pretty much at will, to create new words. But how did this come about?

The Curious Case of Cheerioats
This cross-product naming convention surely began with the popular breakfast cereal Cheerios. The brand name ends with “Os” and the cereal is in the shape of an “O”. It all makes perfect sense until you realize that Cheerios weren’t originally called that. They were originally called Cheerioats.

General Mills came out with Cheerioats in 1941. Due to a trademark dispute with Quaker Oats, the name was changed in 1946 to Cheerios. So, that iconic “Os,” which resonates so strongly with the shape of the cereal, actually wasn’t the original brand strategy. The original strategy was to emphasize that the cereal is made from oats.

Branding and Adapting to Change
So how have the Cheerios marketers adapted tho this change? Well, there is a big challenge in that many (if not most) people probably don’t realize that Cheerios are made from oats. Whether that’s important or not depends on the time; recently, when oats became associated with lowering cholesterol, the company emphasized that feature of the product. When oats are less of a selling point, that is de-emphasized.

The more abstract name actually gives them more flexibility. For instance, “Multi Grain Cheerios” are mostly corn and wheat, not oats. It would be hard to extend the brand in that way with the old name “Cheerioats.”

Ironically, Quaker Oats has come out with its own oval-shaped cereal, Quaker Oh’s. So it’s all come full circle.

Using Productive Morphemes as a Branding Tool
Often companies find themselves with a productive morpheme they can turn into a powerful branding asset. McDonald’s is the classic example, using the prefix “Mc” on such diverse products as Chicken McNuggets, McRib sandwiches, McCafé drinks, and McGriddle pancakes. So when they came to Catchword looking to introduce their new chicken sandwich, it was only natural for us to suggest building on that brand equity with the McBistro Chicken sandwich.

Apple’s done something similar with its “i” brands (always in lowercase). With the popularity of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it’s easy to forget that the “i” prefix first made a splash with the iMac. Though this prefix isn’t unique to Apple, once they built up the brand equity, it was only natural to continue using it for new products.

Conclusion: Branding in Flux
Brands must adapt to survive. To thrive, it is important for marketers to seize on strengths and exploit them. Sometimes it’s calculated, like Apple’s “i” product line, and sometimes it can be forced on you, like the name change to Cheerios.  Just as linguists track changes to languages, brand strategists need to track the meaning and impact of their brands as they change and develop over time.


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