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How OffLimits is Waging a Counterculture War in the DTC Cereal Market

This scrappy young company wants to change the culture around breakfast. Do they have what it takes to compete with behemoths like Kelloggs or General Mills?
OffLimits

mystery-shopperWe’ve noted the common theme among the DTC upstart brands trying to take over the cereal market: an appeal to the child living inside adults. But with our third and final company, OffLimits, their brand feels less like a nostalgia-based tactical decision and more like a piece of art.

Their marketing appeals less to the “better-for-you brand” factor and more to the culture surrounding breakfast itself. With unusually relatable and fleshed-out mascots, exclusive toy drops, custom art boxes, and a wholly defiant attitude OffLimits is appealing to a new generation of young adults craving newness, inclusivity, and transparency.

And they’re doing it with style.

What OffLimits Sells

OffLimits is one of the few entirely plant-based cereals and sets itself apart by being organic, vegan, gluten-free, and pretty darn tasty, too. The cereal flavors share a name with their individual mascots, who represent moods and emotions like anxiety and depression. DASH is also the very first female cereal character ever created in the industry.

They currently produce four flavors: Dash (a coffee and cacao flavor that turns your milk into cold brew), Spark (a playful strawberry flavor), Flex (a warming cinnamon flavor), and Zombie (a vanilla-y pandan flavor). Each flavor is available on its own for $8.50 or in a variety pack with one of each for $31. They also offer a $20 variety pack of mini boxes – single serving boxes cleverly designed to serve as both package and bowl.

Their boxes, like their website, are covered in the eponymous mascots and include a coloring-book-style back side that represents the mascot’s bedroom, allowing you to explore more of their fictional lives.

Because what is breakfast cereal without the toy, they also offer a line of “toys” ranging from exclusive designer bags to spray paint to socks. Sadly, they’re not available for free inside the box. But who wouldn’t want to pick up some Zombie socks or a few packs of Cereal Glitter with their order?

The cereal itself is not too sweet. I wouldn’t call it sugary. Each of the flavors is a little coconut-y, as coconut flour is one of the main ingredients. The biggest surprise for me was Zombie, the pandan-flavored cereal. Pandan is a Southeast Asian plant that I’d never tasted before. Its flavor profile is an earthy vanilla and coconut which I found surprisingly pleasant.

OffLimits Cereal

Who is OffLimits Selling To

A little DASH in the morningIt’s a little hard to determine precisely who a brand’s target market is from the outside but, according to interviews from their founder Emily Elyse Miller, OffLimits is appealing to young adults (millennials and Gen Z) who are more conscious about what they buy and what they want to put in their bodies.

Their go-to-market plan is outside-the-box, originally focused heavily on in-person events to build community (their first event was a gallery show in LA supporting school art programs in 2020). Then COVID happened. While supply chain issues and quarantine protocols threw a curve ball into their plans – their adaptability and community-focused authenticity helped them build a group of firm supporters.

Who OffLimits Competes With

OffLimits currently sells direct to consumers from their own and partner websites. But they don’t plan to stay that way. While the breakfast market in North America alone is valued at around $16 billion, it’s heavily dominated by major brands such as Kelloggs, Post, and General Mills.

Miller thinks they have a shot at some of that market share by appealing to consumers who know the history of those major brands and want a more inclusive, relatable brand. “Kellogg’s and General Mills are the cool kids you want to hang out with because of their popular vibe and addictive, sugary coating… but it’s all fake. Healthy cereals tend to make miraculous wellness claims like ‘zero sugar’ or a million grams of protein, but those brands are just perpetuating the oldest trick in the book: you’re not good enough, but if you buy our product then you will be. Another fake crew with a boring-flavored wrapper. OffLimits isn’t here to put you in a box. Boxes are for cereal, and our cereal isn’t telling you what to do.”

Of the DTC brands we decided to explore, OffLimits is the youngest and smallest, the upstart among the upstarts, if you will. Looking at their marketing and corporate culture, they compare to a small band of art-school kids going up against the business-school kids and the entrenched administration to show everyone there’s a better way.

Who is Behind the Brand

ZOMBIELaunched in 2020 out of Science Inc.’s startup studio, they acquired a $2.3 million round of funding in 2021 that encompasses friends and family, pre-seed, and seed financing. Their team is small with less than a dozen individuals out of their New York headquarters and remotely.

The company was founded by Emily Elyse Miller, who attended the Fashion Institute of Technology before getting into the trends and forecasting space (and literally wrote the book on breakfast). Miller considers herself an “art-school kid” and has purposefully infused the brand with an artistic ascetic all its own. By making decisions such as creating the well-rounded, bold mascots before the flavors were even decided to selling mascot-branded spray paint as one of their first items in the Toy Store, it’s clear that creating art is important to this brand, not just an afterthought.

Small But Scrappy

Our previous two brands Magic Spoon and Schoolyard Snacks relied heavily on social media influencers and email to spread the word and reach their customers. But OffLimits has kept its marketing small and community-based.

Feelin’ the TikTok Vibe

OffLimits TikTokAs we mentioned previously, their initial strategy involved a number of community-building in-person events – which mostly had to be scrapped due to COVID. Since then, they’ve done a good job building a presence on social media, specifically TikTok where they have acquired 220k followers. They’ve also made some noise with event cereal carts, a guest spot on HBO, and creative product team-ups with other brands like Salt & Straw, Intelligentsia, Chamberlain Coffee, and Tomme.

One of my personal favorite campaigns is a series of TikTok videos that came to be known as “reverse stealing” wherein they attempted to sneak boxes of their own cereal into major retailers and then check out with one – all while filming the results. They’re cute, interesting, and really emphasize that OffLimits is the kind of brand that could very well show up on those same shelves one day.

Email That’s Light But Important

While they offer email signup on their site, it doesn’t generate a lot of emails. I immediately received a welcome email after signing up with a little bit of info on the different cereals and a link back to the store. But in a month or so that I’ve been watching them, I’ve only received one additional email not related to my purchase – a notice about a team-up with Chamberlain Coffee for a limited run of Dash cereal made with Chamberlain Coffee.

After my purchase, I received a total of three transactional emails. The first was a purchase confirmation, the second was a shipping confirmation and tracking number, and the third soliciting feedback on my order about a week after it arrived.

At no point did they push additional items or offer any discounts – even after I left my cart abandoned for a few days. They also didn’t send a flood of marketing emails hoping to get me to buy more.

They’re definitely keeping email short and sweet, which has some pros and cons. With their penchant for brand team-ups and limited-time offerings, sending emails regarding those to their subscribers can create a lot of additional buzz, without risking unsubscribes by sending the same ol’ same ol’ every day. They could also be rewarded by integrating their emails with their social channels, introducing themselves through their TikTok feed in the first email, and getting subscribers to also follow somewhere else.

OffLimits Email Example

Summation

What they are doing seems to be working for them (their first two runs of cereal were completely sold out). They’ve done a great job in building something unique and interesting and it’s definitely getting people’s attention. They’re sticking to their guns and building a solid foundation based on stability and customer relationships.

But if they want to win against the major brands, much less the other startups like Magic Spoon, they’re going to need to be more aggressive with their traditional marketing tactics. It’s commendable that they want to focus on being real and putting good things into the world, but without better, broader communication their message will just get drowned out in the noise.

They need to be doing a better job of continuing the sale after purchase. Without the traditional subscription model that most DTC companies use, it’s even more important to remind purchasers of your product after the fact and give them a convenient reminder and reason to buy again.

They should also be implementing tactics to convert the “lookie-loos.” They’re getting plenty of press, but they’re not really doing anything to engage site visitors that have bounced. Email, remarketing, even some sort of first-time-purchase promotion (free cereal glitter maybe?) could go a long way to getting visitors to convert – which is the first step in creating a new, raving fan.

For now, it will be an uphill battle actually getting onto the supermarket shelf, so creating a vehicle to supply their fans with products in a way that’s simple and recurring could be a great benefit to both them and their customers. But no matter what they do, this will certainly be a fun brand to keep an eye on.

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