In a classic display of free speech and economic politicking, General Mills corporation recently experienced a PR blunder.
Attempting to cash in on brand loyalty by engaging cereal consumers in a social media interaction, the brand Cheerios invited customers to say “what Cheerios mean to me” via facebook. Participants were give a blank yellow slate resembling the Cheerios box color and three words in dark lettering using the brand’s font and the ability to punctuate with a Cheerio. Simple, visual, instantly accessible, possibly viral – truly it has the characteristics of a good social media campaign.
Timing is everything.
This clever idea fell on the heels of the narrow defeat of Proposition 37, which would have required producers and retailers to accurately label their products and prevented products with GMOs from using terms such as “all natural”, ”naturally derived” and “naturally flavored” within the state of California.
|Proposition No||37||Genetically Engineered Foods Labeling||Pro = 5,986,652||48.5%||Against = 6,365,236||51.5%|
The defeat was due, in part to the $46 million multimedia campaign funded by a group of multinational brands like General Mills. After launching this new social media innovation, the Cheerio’s marketing team quickly discovered that many Facebook users didn’t approve of their possible GMO content or their political advocacy on Proposition 37. The site was stormed by consumers using their three-word authority to let the company know exactly how they felt. Presumably, Cheerios was looking for feel goods like Smile, Fun and Love but the site was overrun with comments like GMOs, Poison, Cancerous, and GMO Science Experiment.
I am certain that this will be a well-studied business school case in no time. Cheerios is an old beloved brand. Parents across the US tote small containers of Cheerios in their purses, cars and diaper bags in order to quiet toddlers at doctor’s appointments and weddings. My boys had a board book with cut outs where they placed Cheerios to become truck wheels, google eyes, and bubbles. Truly, the breakfast cereal is an icon on American tables.
Yet this demonstration and public relations faux pas is a great example of the ability to use consumer power. As I muddled through the backlash and articles, it appears that consumers’ loudest cry is not so much against Frankenfoods as it is against a lack of transparency. Since General Mills doesn’t have to label, we don’t know if they’re using GMOs. We do know that their $1.1 million contribution to fight Proposition 37 casts doubts on their ingredients. They were joined in the fight by none other than Monsanto and Pepsico.
The United States remains one of the few industrialized countries that does not demand labeling of “genetically modified” food items.