When a big food brand steps up to run an overly-environmental campaign (if there is such a thing), consumers beware. Because when that brand misses the mark, folks line up to hand out an instantly ugly report card across social media.
However, when the grades are good, shrug, success is much quieter. That’s why we wanted to take a moment to cheer General Mills for its #BringBackTheBees campaign. Mixing marketing and activism—whether political, social or environmental—is always a tricky task. Honey Nut Cheerios found success by backing an awareness-oriented re-brand with action.
Honeybee Colony Collapse
Between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2016, American beekeepers lost an average of 44% of their entire colonies. While honeybee colonies have been in decline since World War II, media coverage has ramped up in recent years via news stories, documentaries and even memes. (Remember that video of Eli Manning looking stunned and unhappy after brother Peyton won the Super Bowl? A viral caption read: “when ur brother wins the super bowl but then u remember that bees are dying globally at an alarming rate”).
General Mills kept it simple. Buzz – their iconic cartoon bee – has long been the mascot for Honey Nut Cheerios. Honeybees are disappearing, so General Mills made Buzz disappear. On their cereal boxes, the mascot has been replaced by an eye-catching white cutout—an easy, awareness-building move.
Still, it’s hard to keep the public’s attention these days. The news cycle just keeps getting faster. With so much going on, it’s easy to forget about the bees who pollinate the fruits and vegetables that you’re planning to munch on this summer. General Mills used Honey Nut Cheerios’ household name to remind people of a cause they’ve likely (excuse the pun) already heard some buzz about. While it’s hardly cut-and-dry proof, Google searches about the plight of honeybees have been on a broad uptrend this year. We give General Mills at least partial credit.
Had General Mills just removed Buzz from its boxes, I would have expected some accusations of greenwashing (like this article from investing website The Street, suggesting the campaign is merely an attempt to remedy soft cereal sales). But #BringBackTheBees isn’t just a cereal box repackaging effort; it’s a complete campaign. Again, that’s why it’s worth applauding. The company’s website includes easy-to-follow information about the decline in honeybee colonies and a clear explanation of how General Mills is helping. The company plans to plant around 3,300 acres of bee habitats on its oat farms by 2020 and gave out free wildflower seeds to its customers. In all, it gave out 1.5 billion seeds—ten times its goal!
The lesson here is as simple as this campaign is: Brands can’t simply dip a toe into activism. If you try to vaguely link your mascot or product to a movement, you’re going to get burned. It reeks of co-opting something important purely for profit. Consumers and critics alike won’t be impressed. But, if you draw a clear line between your brand and an issue consumers care about and back up your campaign with action, you just might enjoy the same quiet success Cheerios has.