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Liking a Brand Enough That You’ll Never Sue Them

Cheerios Necklace
(Photo from My Natural Family.)

Early Wednesday morning, sitting above my cereal bowl — full of oats most likely toasted by General Mills — I read that clicking the Like button on the Facebook page of my favorite brands might abdicate my right to sue the company if it later does something that causes me harm. From the New York Times:

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

In fact, consumers may not even need to hit the Like button to give up their right to sue:

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

This is hard for me to get my head around. Obviously a brand doesn’t make a move like that with the intention of delighting its customers. (It’s Friday, almost three days after the news broke, and it continues to dominate the conversation — none of it positive — on Twitter for #Cheerios.)

#Cheerios in Twitter

So why do it?

General Mills seems to have a gigantic number of happy customers who spent almost $18 billion on General Mills cereals and baking mixes last year, up seven percent from the year before. Do a lot of them end up suing the company in the end? I’m guessing they don’t. A chipped tooth here, or the occasional turd in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, right? It’s not like they’re selling toxic, smokable chemicals or fire arms.

Which put a weird thought in my head. I froze mid bite, staring down a spoonful of milky breakfast flakes, and wondered: Do the lawyers at General Mills know something I don’t? Some secret poisonous ingredient we don’t know about yet?!

I mean why else would they go after their very best customers — the one who are befriending them in Facebook, and trumpeting their brands across social media? Baffling. Maybe the CMO was out sick the day they updated the privacy policy.

Product Placement in Trash Talk: The Strange Case of Honey Nut Cheerios

(Image credit: Honey Nut Cheerios site.)

Since the beginning of time (or at least since 1934) cereal makers have put athletes on their boxes to move more product, and they’ve worked those boxes onto the set of movies and TV shows to create implied endorsement. More recently we’ve seen all manner of stunts to seed social media with branded conversations — from Twitter gimmicks to racy campaigns in other countries in hopes that social media will bring a campaign to US shores, along with a paper trail that points the blame at some maverick local agency.

Now Honey Nut Cheerios has us all asking if they’ve grafted product placement, celebrity endorsement and social-media wizardry into one miraculous marketing ploy: Did they hatch a “branded appearance” scheme to insert their cereal inside some NBA trash talk?!

According to Ad Age:

We may never know for sure what Kevin Garnett said to Carmelo Anthony in a bout of trash talking during the Knicks-Celtics matchup last week at Madison Square Garden. But we do know what the internet thinks he said: “Your wife tastes like Honey Nut Cheerios,” referring to Mr. Anthony’s wife, La La Anthony. Mr. Garnett and Celtics coach Doc Rivers have denied this, but regardless of whether it’s true or false, it drove a lot of Twitter mentions for Cheerios last week, which was up 122,000 comments over its average, good for No. 1 on this week’s Brand Chatter Chart.

And while Carmelo Anthony is now on record as a fan of Honey Nut Cheerios, I can’t imagine General Mills, the make of Cheerios, could have staged this stunt. Your wife tastes like Honey Nut Cheerios?! If, in fact, that’s what Kevin Garnett said, it’s intended as a crass insult of some kind. Even if I don’t have a precise understanding of how exactly the insult works, it does suggest there’s trouble — or at least some unconventional arrangements — in the Anthony household. Not exactly the kind of stuff Honey Nut Cheerios generally aligns itself with.

Digiday Brand Summit 2012

I took one for the team this week, trekking out to idyllic Deer Park, Utah, to attend Digiday’s Brand Summit. Speakers included executives, marketers and social media leaders from Kellogg’s, General Mills, Nielsen, Nestle, Fox, Turner, MGM Grand, TaylorMade, Saatchi, OMD and others. If I can exclude the conversations about snow conditions and s’mores technique, there were three big recommendations coming from the podium. And perhaps I bring a certain bias to the discussion but photos-as-messaging-unit was a recurrent theme throughout.

1. Target your audience, not the hot new platform

Montana Triplett, director of digital for Hennessey, acknowledged the huge audience and excitement around Pinterest, but it’s not on her list of priority media channels for 2013. “Moms pinning pictures of Halloween costumes aren’t our demo.” (She does, however, expect Instagram to play a big role for Hennessey in 2013, now that the service offers a mechanism to avoid the under 21 crowd.)

Asked if the search era is giving way to a social media era, iCrossing president and CEO Don Scales cautioned against strategies that are built to serve a distribution channel instead of a brand story. Neither search nor social defines the current era, he said: “It’s a content era.”

In a conversation about mobile advertising strategies MGM Grand’s Donna Goff put it most concisely: “Target humans not the device.” Technologies and platforms change fast but your customers are still humans, motivated by the same kinds of things that motivated them 20 years ago.

2. Tailor your message to the medium, not your comfort zone

To paraphrase the comments of several speakers: Whatever question you ask your agency, its answer will involve online videos and rich, beautiful imagery for your corporate website. It may not be the right tool for the job, but it’s right there at the top of the toolbox.

(Tammy Gordon is director of social for AARP.)

Meanwhile, according to Jim Cuene, interactive marketing director at General Mills, “In social media video isn’t awesome — but images are.” Hennessey’s Triplett echoed the sentiment: “A photo of a liquor bottle works better for us than a celebrity video.” Two more examples of brands behaving like publishers: Create content, give your customers access to it, make more of whatever they liked. Cuene pointed out that General Mills has been exercising its publishing muscles for nearly 100 years, starting with Betty Crocker cookbooks back in the 1920s.

3. Emotional rewards can be as powerful as monetary one

To hear some pundits talk about success in social media (such as this one), you’d think the secret to digital marketing is scavenger hunts with cash handouts for the winners. So it was refreshing to be reminded by several experienced social-marketing practitioners that emotional rewards — a reply in Twitter, say, or the opportunity to see the photo you submitted on the brand’s homepage — inspire participation as effectively as prize money. Many of us, it turns out, want fame more than fortune.

(Esty Gorman is director of strategy at Iris Worldwide.)

And building an emotional connection drives more value for your brand. Traffic from Hennessey’s social programs has a lower bounce rate and results in longer time-spent on their sites than traffic from paid ads.

Digiday’s photo contest was its own case-in-point. They asked conference attendees to post pictures to Instagram and Twitter marked #Digiday, and one participating photographer would win an iPhone lens attachment. I was surprised to see two guys posting pictures from their Samsung phones. “What’ll you do with the iPhone accessory if you win?” I asked, and they shrugged their shoulders. Turns out they just got a kick out of seeing their pictures projected above the stage during breaks. I’ll admit that barely qualifies as “fame” but it was enough to do the trick.

The Breakfast of Swingers

When the sophisticated ad-targeting algorithms break down, as they sometimes do, we are usually subject to campaigns that test our tolerance for (unintended) tastelessness, such as life insurance ads next news of killed terrorists or cruise-liner ads next to stories of sinking ships.

Today’s installment, however, is much more fun: Bisquick’s “Unleash the Hidden Power” campaign is running on this women’s lifestyle site post exploring the rising popularity of wife-swapping. Meanwhile there is no reference to any of the above topics at the Fun and Games section of the brand’s website.

More from humans v bots file.

Wonka’s Movie-Inspired Candy Empire

Forty years ago Quaker Oats ponied up $3 million to finance the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in exchange for the rights to create and sell Wonka-branded candy bars. At the last minute production troubles prevented the bars from going into distribution but Wonka bars and candy eventually hit store shelves. Full story at Brandchannel.

Which of their commercials do you like best?

Laffy Taffy.