Uh-oh Cheerio!

In a classic display of free speech and economic politicking, General Mills corporation recently experienced a PR blunder.

Uh Oh! Cheerio!

Uh Oh! Cheerio!


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.

Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 2.51.38 PM

From CheeseSlave

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.

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42 Comments

  1. Bravo! Power to the people – truly! Wish I would have known so i could have added my two cents. Thanks, Tammy and I’m glad I finally got out of my slumber and back to your incredible blog!

    Reply
  2. Thank you Diane. It is an amazing story and there are others but this one is interesting to me regardless of one’s opinion on GMOs. This is about a company paying a penalty for their political position and how quickly the backlash occurred.

    Reply
  3. Alison Rapping

     /  December 15, 2012

    I think my friends in Boulder would love your blog. I will share with them. Thanks for creating. Alison

    Alison Rapping Sent from my IPhone

    Reply
  4. I am still bewildered that people voted against the proposition.

    Reply
    • There was so much advertising against it and those were the folks who said that being for it meant being against change and progress. Mercola.com has uncovered some of the payments that went from the large companies to professors who offered opinions on it.

      Reply
      • I am not in California, but I sure kept my eye on election night. I live in the heart of GMO country.

        Reply
  5. I continue to learn here, Tammy! Thank you for that . ..and a rather good lesson for General Mills. $1.1 million could’ve gone a long ways toward making a better product. And I have always liked Cheerios too. :(

    Reply
    • We’ve all liked them Debbie. It’s just that now we have to start paying attention to things like this and understand where big dollars are creating big lobbies that influence laws and decisions. And companies like Trader Joes (many consumers put off by Cheerios are advocating for Joe’s Os.) stand to benefit from these actions. I’m not advocating for Trader Joe’s just yet – haven’t checked it out.

      Reply
  6. When we don’t stand up is it because we don’t want to stand out, on or for? This baffles me – Canada is not doing it’s part either. The other day I asked a store employee what the numbers meant on the label telling location. Though he’s worked there for years, he had no clue. That is not good enough! There’s so much misinformation; yet where do we find trustworthy information?

    Reply
    • Amy, this is where technology can help us. I am continuously impressed with smart phone apps and think that we could use one to scan bar codes and get the true story. And one of my favorite Cheerio protestors was one that said Occupy Food. I thought of you.

      Reply
  7. Heather

     /  December 15, 2012

    Great Blog and you are right this will be a great social media business case!

    Reply
    • Thanks Heather. It really demonstrates the risk associated with these things but also the transparency required. They ended this idea within a couple of days due to the words they were getting. If you’re on pinterest, you can see many of them.

      Reply
  8. Uh . . . oh . . . cheerios! :D
    Thanks, Tammy.

    Reply
  9. That is amazing. Here in deepest darkest Africa we have very stringent food labeling laws. Even stricter than the UK!

    Reply
  10. Timing, indeed. People will always find a way of speaking out, won’t they , Tammy?

    Reply
  11. Even though the moment is smaller, I do think it is getting larger and larger, don’t you?

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com
    http://deltacountyhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com

    ¸.•*¨*•♪♫♫♪Merry Christmas to you ♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥
    ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜”

    Reply
    • I don’t see the reason that we are fighting it so hard when it’s the standard everywhere else. Certainly there is a cost but what the unknown cost might be much greater.

      Reply
  12. One of my kids just loves Cheerios which drives me nuts. I relent once in awhile and buy them because it thrills her so much. But this is too funny–what you never want to be is a business school case study ;-)

    Reply
    • I think you’re right about the B-school study. I haven’t checked it out yet but am hearing that Joe’s Os are a non-GMO alternative to those who love their cereal.

      Reply
  13. Lisa H

     /  December 18, 2012

    The internet has become such a great voice for those who would like to act but do not have the funding of the large companies, lobbies, and organized groups. It also lets us communicate immediately with companies, such as your Cheerios box example. Way to go!

    Reply
    • And apparently, they responded very rapidly and took the contest or whatever they call it down within a couple of days.

      Reply
  14. I can’t tell you how gratified I am to see the GMO stranglehold over agriculture, food, politics, and consumers slowly loosening.

    If a label GMOs vote ever comes to Arizona I’ll definitely be voting for it. Considering the money that the industry poured into just California, in two years I’d love to see ballot measures in maybe five or ten other states. If the transparency momentum continues growing, the food industry can’t keep bankrolling deception… each offending company will risk losing market share.

    Reply
    • It is costly, isn’t it? Can you imagine how many one-time set ups of new labeling $47 million would have done? It will be interesting to see if this does travel to other states or if it is considered another crazy California thing.

      Reply
  15. Reblogged this on Eat N Run Fitness and commented:
    This post made me smile, definitely a good example of consumers asserting their power! Love it!

    Reply
  16. Fantastic. That company has learned the hard way that consumers are against GMO products and it is about time Monsanto was shutdown for all the evil they have done. Why won’t the USA allow labeling on foods stating that the product contains GMOs? Could it be because they are in bed with Monsanto? xx

    Reply
  17. What an interesting article. Here in the UK food from animals fed GM animal feed does not have to be labelled – eg meat, eggs and milk so we have to be mindful of the source of these products. I know buying local/organic etc is considered more expensive and less convenient than buying something mass produced but even swapping a few supermarket purchases each month for something locally produced could make a difference to our health and perhaps the influence of large multi-corps over our food/lives. Eggs from a neighbour’s chickens, cereals from a local farmer…. its the drip, drip effect that can sometimes change things.

    Reply
    • I like the thought of the drip-drip effect and I like your philosophy to changing out things little by little.

      Reply
  18. Interesting post… Here in India, there are very few laws regarding GM foods. Even if there are laws, it would be a true challenge to implement it through out the country given the size and population, in addition to the demographic differences. But arguments and opinions spread like wild fire here, by word of mouth! This has helped more than any law in spreading awareness about GM foods. True that when people change their opinion, no amount of PR or advertising will help revert it.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the visit. There are definitely two sides to the GM argument and both should be listened to. This is more about transparency and truth – it’s lovely that your word of mouth travels so quickly.

      Reply
      • True… there are definitely two sides to the GM argument.
        Transparency and truth are much needed, especially for a brand that people have loved and trusted for a long time. What disappoints more is the amount that has been spent to fight proposition 37… Social networking sites like facebook give consumers the much needed space to voice their opinions effectively.

        Reply
  19. This might be a FUN experiment to do with your boys:
    http://52brandnew.com/2012/12/26/new-experience-51-ivory-soap-experiment/

    Actually, the whole site would likely appeal to you.

    Hope you had a Merry time this week.

    Reply
  20. HI Tammy,
    I would be remiss if I did not stop by AgriGirl to wish you and yours all good things in the coming year. I hope you all have been enjoying this Christmastime. We’ve had a busy busy season–filled with joy, especially with the birth of our grandson, Zachary.
    To good food, and food justice,
    Nancy

    Reply
    • Congratulations Nancy! What a gift for the holidays. I so appreciate your food writing and look forward to seeing what 2012 has in store for you.

      Reply
  21. this is pretty brilliant.

    Reply
  22. What a great post, and I cannot wait to share in one of my business classes. I can’t help but think would this response have happened in another country? Definitely food for thought.

    Reply

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