In 2012, General Mills developed a social media campaign encouraging consumers to visit their Facebook page and share “What Cheerios Means to You.” They even designed a special app so users could turn any phrase into the cereal’s iconic font and yellow background, with the signature Cheerio dotting every “I.”
Unfortunately for General Mills, the campaign generated exactly the opposite of the “feel-good” messages the company was hoping for. In response to General Mills $1.1 million contribution to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign to label GMO’s in California, consumers covered the Facebook page with anti-GMO messages such as “GMO’s, No Thanks”, “Deception”, and even “Poison.”
Of course, General Mills wasted no time in removing the app, but the damage had been done. Thanks in part to the GMOInside, a coalition demanding a non-GMO food supply, the Facebook comments continued, even after the app was removed and the campaign ended. But what happened next, turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.
Despite General Mills stance that GMO’s are perfectly safe, and their lobbying efforts against state level GMO labeling initiatives, the company apparently still took this consumer backlash to heart. On January 2nd, General Mills announced that original Cheerios had been reformulated to be GMO-free.
The predominant ingredient in Cheerios was never in question, as there are no genetically modified oats, however, the sugar and cornstarch used in the product were assumed to be made from genetically modified crops. The company now claims that they were able to source both ingredients without the use of GMO’s and will be labeling the product as such very soon. Though we can’t be certain that the Facebook ambush is the only reason for the change, General Mills openly admitted that their decision stemmed from consumer demand.
Pressuring change from food companies via social media is a relatively new tactic, but it seems to be working quite well. An article released in the New York Times last month described the many ways consumers are using social media to convince companies to reconsider ingredients, change the processing of their products, and alter their food labels. Never before have consumers had such easy access to the top dogs of major food corporations, and several companies are actually starting to take note of the criticism.
Consumers still have a lot of questions for General Mills after their announcement. If the company really cares, why aren’t the other Cheerios varieties being reformulated? Better yet, why not make all General Mills cereals GMO-free? Will a third-party be confirming that the product is completely non-GMO before the labels start to appear? If General Mills believes that consumers want GMO-free products, and are willing to make the necessary steps to create them, why are they fighting so hard to keep these products from being labeled?
If this first step, which even General Mills admitted didn’t take much effort, helps the company acquire new customers and increase profits, there is no question that the company will address these questions to meet consumer demand. Social media sure is proving itself as an important tactic in the game of food reform.