3 min read

When Cause Marketing Goes Wrong

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It was a great idea.

Honey Nut Cheerios was introduced in 1979, and shortly after their mascot, Buzz the Bee, was launched. Fast forward to the present day where there have been countless articles about the declining bee population, and the need to do something to save our pollinating friends.

For most marketers, this was a lay-up. It would make perfect sense for Honey Nut Cheerios to incorporate a little cause marketing in their campaign. It would help with brand awareness, it would connect with people on an emotional level, and it would elevate their product beyond just a breakfast cereal to a simple way customers could take part in helping to save a part of the earth.

So Cheerios created a campaign called "Bring Back the Bees" and placed 1.5 billion packaged wildflower seeds in their cereal boxes so customers everywhere could plant them and help the bees.

Easy-peasy, right?

It turned out that some of the seeds on the list were invasive species that kill native plants and take over the places where they grow. The internet, including Kathryn Turner, an evolutionary ecologist at Colorado State University, began to raise the alarm.

General Mills, which produces Cheerios, has claimed that the seeds are the same that can be found in home improvement stores nationwide, however, ecologists still argue that the plants are still invasive and counterproductive.

Either way, Twitter arguments, and invasive plants are probably not what Cheerios had in mind when they agreed that the cause marketing idea was a great one to move forward with.

So where did it go wrong?

For starters, Cheerios should have realized that they were getting in environmental science through their marketing and should have consulted with experts (in plants, not just bees) right from the start to ensure they were helping more than hurting.

Beyond that, Cheerios did a lot of things right when it comes to a successful cause marketing campaign, such as:

  • Ensure it makes sense for the brand. Cheerios has aligned themselves with the Bee since their beginning. It was a seamless storyline for them to be involved with - even if they hadn't fully thought it through.
  • Provide real value vs. a gimmick. Cheerios made an investment in something they honestly felt would help the Bee population. If you're considering a cause marketing campaign make sure that you can quantify the results of your partnership - not just the product sales.
  • Tell a story. Many customers may not have known that the bee population was declining and what it would mean for our day-to-day life. Cheerios incorporated the message into their marketing, their product, and digitally through an educational website and videos showing what the world (or at least a grocery store) would look like without bees.
  • Provide an actionable next step. Digital participation in a cause - often called "slacktivism" - may be seen as contributing a minimal effort by some, but studies have shown that digital involvement in a cause marketing campaign is more likely to lead to on-the-ground engagement. Millennials particularly are more apt to participate in a cause after following, liking, or engaging online and since millennials mostly live online and that's where they get most of their information.
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