Shopper Innovation Awards Grand Prix: The cause effect

General Mills and Cossette take the top prize for Honey Nut Cheerios and "Bring Back the Bees."

This article appears in the May 2017 issue of strategy.

The wins: General Mills (Honey Nut Cheerios) “Bring Back the Bees” by Cossette Grand Prix, Gold Integration, Gold Original Idea, Gold Reinvention

General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios brand was sitting on marketing gold. It was just a matter of recognizing the powerful symbolism in its brand, tying it to the appropriate cause, and then trusting that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.

The brand took up the cause of disappearing bee populations by removing its own iconic mascot, Buzz, from cereal boxes. The “Bring Back the Bees” campaign’s extraordinary success in raising awareness and boosting sales earned it this year’s Grand Prix.

“Post-launch, everyone’s like ‘Well of course, that makes total sense,’” says Jason Chaney, chief strategy officer at Cossette, of the strategy. “But leading up to the creation, that wasn’t necessarily the case. A lot of people thought consumers were afraid of bees, that this wasn’t going to work as a program because people just didn’t care or didn’t know.”

Getting to the idea of tying Honey Nut Cheerios to the fate of Canadian bees is part of a familiar process at the agency, Chaney says: begin by trying to find value for the consumer and then tie it to the brand, rather than going at it the other way around.

Building a campaign around a cause wasn’t the easiest sell with the company’s emphasis on purpose-based marketing, he says. It took almost a year to successfully pitch the strategy. The Cossette team was able to run with it after finding that the declining bee population was the third-most important environmental cause for Canadians.

The campaign’s shopper marketing element was its cleverest: the brand used its own cereal box, ubiquitous in grocery stores and homes across the country, to spread the word. All they had to do was remove Buzz, leaving a white silhouette in the bee’s place.

The campaign was pushed with an online video of people saving various animals, which directed viewers to a dedicated website where they could order wildflower seeds to plant. The original allotment of 35 million (one for every Canadian) was exhausted in week one of the eight-week campaign.

After all the seeds had cleared (115 million were distributed in all) and the flowers had been (presumably) pollinated, the campaign turned around flat sales for the brand, leading to an 11.8% increase. It was also expanded to the U.S. this year, where General Mills gave away 1.5 billion seeds in one week (though the brand met with some blowback when news articles wrote about the risk of planting non-native species).

“They kept the balance between the really important corporate social responsibility and [brought] it all the way down to the shelf and on a box of cereal,” says SIA co-chair Wes Brown, VP of brand management for retail at Loblaw.