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What Happens When Cause Marketing Goes Wrong

Saving the bees has been an environmental issue since the turn of the millennium, when beekeeper’s concerns drove scientific research into colony collapse disorder and drew attention to a dramatic population falloff in native pollinators. Much of the world’s agricultural output depends on bees and other pollinators, so losses of millions of hives and native species spurred intense research and debate. Was it pesticides? (Some nations have banned a family of chemicals called neonicotinoids.) Was it mites? Was it some sort of virus? Did weather or other environmental factors affect the hives? Is climate change a possible contributor?

These concerns resulted in bee-themed marketing, including efforts from Burt’s Bees, Haagen-Dazs, and Sue Bee Honey. But recent marketing from Honey-Nut Cheerios recently attracted buzz—and not in a good way.

The brand’s bee-themed packaging and ads made a save-the-bees campaign a good fit for the General Mills cereal. The campaign included social media (#BringBackTheBees), and whiting-out their bee character, Buzz, on packaging. The brand also included wildflower seeds in their boxes encouraging consumers to plant the seeds to help bees. But their effort appears to be poorly researched, more about optics than a true commitment to an environmental cause, or as the Ad Contrarian calls it, virtue hustling.

Honey bees in particular, but all pollinating bees, are attracted to specific varieties of native plants. Cheerios distributed seed packets containing non-native, possibly invasive plant species that can actually kill off native plants, worsening habitat loss for native bees.

Kathryn G. Turner, an evolutionary biologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado State University, first tweeted her concerns about the seeds. Lifehacker.com interviewed her, and their article sent the campaign viral for all of the worst reasons. General Mills had to issue a statement that the seed packets “contain the same varieties of seeds that consumers will find in seed racks at major national home store chains throughout the U.S.” But Turner points out that the seeds include species designated as invasive, noxious weeds or “exotic pests” in different regions of the USA. In other words, you won’t help local bees by planting those seeds. The company may even be violating state laws by distributing the packets containing unwanted seeds.

Vesey’s Seeds, which partnered with General Mills, is also looking at possible blowback for what probably seemed a stellar opportunity to move product, expand brand awareness, grow their mailing list, and gain some nice publicity.

General Mills is investing $4 million in an ongoing partnership with the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. Protecting pollinators, with a special focus on improving native habitat, is a leading area of focus for Xerces. The organization publishes regional gardening guides for anyone interested in truly helping local pollinators thrive. But why, Lifehacker’s Beth Skwarecki wondered, didn’t General Mills just use Xerces’ locally customized seed mixes? We’re guessing cost came into play somehow… or maybe someone in a decision-making role knew someone at Vesey’s. In the end, an effort to do good went sour and revealed a lack of company commitment.

Lesson: In cause marketing, authenticity and brand perceptions are at stake. If you are going to support a cause, do it very well. The details matter. Cause marketing done to boost sales is not really about the cause. Consumers will spot the fakery, and damage to consumer trust can be long lasting. So if the cause is not your primary focus, just write a nice check, issue a press release, and skip the advertising. 

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