In 2016, General Mills and Veritas Communications launched Bring Back the Bees, a Honey Nut Cheerios campaign that aimed to raise awareness of a rapidly declining bee population by giving consumers wildflower seeds to plant. The award-winning effort removed mascot Buzz the honey bee from cereal boxes, leaving only his silhouette as a reminder of the current threat to bees as a key food source. 

The 2016 campaign connected participants with 115m seeds, far surpassing the goal of 39m — one for each Canadian. It also resulted in considerable engagement and increased sales. Meanwhile, the 2017 edition of the campaign has dispersed 1.5bn wildflower seeds to Canadians and Americans in just one week, a huge increase from its initial goal of 200m.

The Holmes Report spoke to Emma Eriksson, vice president of marketing, General mills Canada about the risks, challenges and keys to success for a purpose based marketing campaign. 

Why focus on a social goal like this for your marketing campaign?

Emma Eriksson: We wanted to engage consumers in a meaningful way and in one that supports a cause that matters to us. Bees are near and dear to our hearts, as we have a bee as our mascot and honey is a key ingredient in one of our legacy products, Honey Nut Cheerios. It was also a campaign centered on Canadians getting involved and making a difference, we love that. It wasn't enough to just raise the issue without a constructive solution. So, we invited consumers to #bringbackthebees by registering online for free wildflower seeds. The goal was to distribute 35 million seeds, one seed for every Canadian. 

How did you come up with the idea?

EE: Our iconic honey bee became the inspiration for this campaign. The bee population is responsible for the pollination of one in three bites of food we eat. The devastating effects of a rapidly declining bee population became a huge concern for us. We wanted to run a campaign that was authentic to our brand, a simple and natural fit, yet one that engaged consumers and gave back to the environment at the same time.

How have you quantified the success of the campaign?

EE: Awareness and engagement were the goals of the campaign. We measured the success of the campaign by media stories, traditional and social media impressions, seed packs distributed and of course, sales lift. The iconic Buzz being taken off the box contributed to increased sales. 

What were the risks and challenges you encountered in the campaign?

EE: The main challenge we faced was running out of seed packs early in the campaign. It was a good problem to have and we found a quick solution, but this year we are prepared with a larger goal. Often, when you run a campaign rooted in cause marketing, you will have people question the brand's right to play in this space. This campaign truly started from an authentic place. Since General Mills has been supporting various organizations working to support the bee populations for years, we made sure to work with credible experts to make sure we made the right impact. 

We enlisted world renowned entomologist and Ted Talk star Dr. Marla Spivak, as our campaign spokeswoman. Championing the cause and lending credibility to the brand, she toured media in Toronto and was interviewed by several national outlets prior to the official launch of the campaign. 

Tapping into a passionate and eco-friendly audience aged 50-plus, we created a unique brand presence and media moment for Honey Nut Cheerios at Canada Blooms, Canada's largest garden show. Seed packs were also sampled and the campaign video was previewed with media and consumers in attendance. 

What role did public relations thinking and PR agencies play, and how did they fit into the overall plan?

EE: Veritas Communications was an integral part of the campaign and worked with our other inter-agency partners. The epidemic directly influenced our core marketing and communication objectives, as we attempted to amplify our message and drive engagement. We focused on simple engagement for our core target that would help us and our community make a difference. In fact, we led with PR and influencer activities, and paid media followed later, allowing us to appropriately seed the right message with the right people. 

What lessons have you learned that you plan to apply now? 

EE: The first and biggest lesson learned is the true power of an integrated campaign. We had both earned and paid working together in harmony and it's a best practice we will employ going forward. We also activated across several tough points to secure maximum exposure, from PR, to packaging, consumer promotions, out of home, TV, etcetera. We found the best people in each domain, the best agencies and partners. Second, seeds! Seeds are a great catalyst for action and are a way for consumers to participate, and a success metric we can benchmark against. Third, we found that families responded enthusiastically in year one and therefore are incorporated into year two more heavily. 

What are some of the differences you're seeing between 2016's Bring Back the Bees campaign and the new one? 

EE: For year two, we wanted to build on the momentum we were still seeing from year one of the campaign. Consumers love the bees and the campaign. We made some tweaks from learnings in year one and amplified elements were we saw opportunity. 

How did you connect human emotion and brand to elevate the social energy of the campaign?

EE: Honey is the first word in our name and a key ingredient in our product. Not only that, our believed mascot Buzz is the most recognized honey bee. There was such a close connection between the cause, our mascot and our key product ingredient, that the strategy effectively wrote itself. Who better in the CPG world to lead and rally people around this cause than HNC?

As iconic and loved as Buzz is, he needed to disappear to make people feel the pang of a declining honey bee population. Nowhere is Buzz more visible and impactful than on the Honey Nut Cheerios box on the store shelf. The love people have for animals is strong, the lengths they are willing to go to help animals is incredible. Removing Buzz from the box would draw attention to an important cause and attention to a box where it mattered most, in the cluttered cereal aisle. Buzz disappearing from the box became the centerpiece for all communications. The rally cry was that another friend needs our help.

What are the keys to creating an integrated campaign that resonates authentically?

EE:  Create a campaign that truly matters to consumers, with check in at critical points to validate, has a natural fit with the brand, and has a simple and clear way to participate.