No matter what it may say on the Wheaties box, cereal is rarely thought of these days as the breakfast of champions. Concerns about sugar have pushed many consumers to other breakfast options.
But General Mills Canada Corp. is hoping to change that with a new campaign, placing Blue Jays star batter Jose Bautista on its Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams cereal boxes for a limited run. It's not the norm for the company in Canada: Wheaties, the cereal known for decorating its boxes with pro athletes, is not sold here. A sponsorship with the Canadian Olympic Committee means that during the Games, amateur athletes make an appearance on boxes, but otherwise General Mills does not use celebrities in its advertising. It has not had a marketing relationship with the Jays for 15 years and has not had a pro baseball player on one of its boxes since Roger Clemens.
But last fall, an employee noticed that Mr. Bautista, who is active on social media, had posted on Instagram a picture of himself hugging a box of Golden Grahams to his chest. He tweeted about enjoying both that cereal and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so General Mills sent him a case of each. Then it reached out to his business manager and started discussions about a marketing deal.
"At first, I didn't know they came from the same company," Mr. Bautista said, sitting in a lounge surrounded by cereal boxes at Rogers Centre on Monday, during an event General Mills held for grocery retailers. The retailers were there to meet the star, tour the dugout and the bullpen, and see the famous "bat flip" bat, the image of that is on one of the boxes. It was orchestrated in hopes that stores will give General Mills' in-store displays better play, including the life-sized cardboard Bautistas that will decorate hundreds of grocery aisles across the country.
It's the first time a sponsorship has come together because of Mr. Bautista's social-media presence, but like some other athletes, he has cultivated it not just to connect with fans, but to set himself up as a more attractive sponsorship prospect.
"I definitely try to maintain close tabs on who is following me … I have a team that helps me with that," Mr. Bautista said.
"I get a pretty broad audience through social media. It's something I'd like to continue to take advantage of," he added.
Mr. Bautista is assisted also by being surrounded by the calibre of players among whom he's always been vocal about wanting to play. A series of dream trades and a playoff run last year ignited excitement among a fan base all too accustomed to defeat and made the team a contender for more sponsorship dollars.
Last fall, the Jays invited General Mills Canada's vice-president and marketing director, Dale Storey, to a game, partly to explore whether the company may be interested in a sponsorship in the future.
To promote the boxes, General Mills has paid for an in-stadium "takeover" of all the digital boards in Rogers Centre for half an inning each for the next five games, beginning on Monday night; and a smaller signage deal for another 10 games.
"We're very open to working more with Jose, we're very open to working more with the Blue Jays, beyond the term of this particular partnership," Mr. Storey said in an interview Monday.
"His presence in Canada will give us a chance to have brand consideration from people who may love these brands, but have forgotten about them," he added.
People have moved on partly because of health concerns about the sugar content of cereal, questioning its role as part of a balanced diet – particularly sugary confections such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams, with nine grams of sugar per 3/4-cup serving, which have been marketed on their sweetness.
"The fact that one of the most prolific athletes in Canada eats our cereal, loves our cereal and endorses our cereal as part of his lifestyle, we think that helps make the case that cereal is actually good for you," Mr. Storey said. "Cereal is healthy. We believe in balance, moderation and exercise. That's how we think about nutrition."
Mr. Bautista says he eats cereal occasionally as a meal replacement when he's on the road and finds the menu on airlines or in hotels somewhat "shaky." More regularly, he has it for breakfast or as a late-night snack – sometimes in place of dessert.
"I don't think this is worse than cheesecake," he said. But what about for people who care about their health, and don't burn as many calories per day as a professional athlete? "If you exclusively eat cereal five times a day, and don't get other nutrients in your body, are you going to be okay? I don't think so," he said. "But cereal has a purpose in the modern diet."
Cereal makers such as General Mills are fighting to regain that place in the modern diet.
"We believe strongly that all of our cereals are part of a balanced lifestyle," Mr. Storey said. "… Aisle 8 needs some excitement."
Sell what you mean, mean what you sell
Jose Bautista's endorsement deal with General Mills happened because "Joey Bats" was vocal on social media about his love for their cereals. Does he always ink such deals with products or services he uses in real life? (Mr. Bautista has also endorsed Coca-Cola in Canada, Booster Juice and New Balance, among other deals.) Here's what he says:
"Yes. It's hard to exclusively do that. Sometimes, you get to try a new product for the first time and you stay on board for a long time. That's what happened with New Balance. I never used to wear New Balance shoes. When I first connected with them six years ago, I put them on and I was like, 'Man, I'm glad I tried this.'… Ideally, yes, you want to stick to the things that you do normally and naturally, and that you love. It's borderline impossible to exclusively do it that way. In this case, it works. It's easier to do when it's real."