An outbreak of E. coli in more than 20 U.S. states has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by federal and state health officials. It turns out that half of the 38 infected people had made something with flour prior to falling ill. Of those approximately 19 people, some reported using General Mills brand flour. As a result, General Mills has voluntarily recalled certain bags of flour: six package types of Gold Medal four, two package types of Signature Kitchens four, and one package type of Gold Medal Wondra flour.
What makes this newsworthy isn’t the recall, as there have been no links between the E. coli and General Mills, its flour, or its factories. It’s newsworthy because it shows an industry leader with a very effective manager at the helm of its public relations department. Rather than wait or sit back and let the media release disinformation or speculation to fuel consumer fears of sickness, General Mills immediately responded with what is no doubt an extremely costly product recall. The company also released a carefully crafted statement on its website that reassures consumers and points out the history of trust the brand has built over the last 150 years.
To quote Liz Nordlie, president of General Mills’ Baking division, “As a leading provider of flour for 150 years, we felt it was important to not only recall the product and replace it for consumers if there was any doubt, but also to take this opportunity to remind our consumers how to safely handle flour.”
That’s a brilliant piece of marketing and consumer assurance, wrapped up in a public safety message. Here we see a company that has not just been in the business for 150 years, but has been a leader in their business during the entire time. This evokes an image of a company tirelessly dedicated to quality and safety – if not, one would logically assume it would not have been in business for so long.
Then, following the image we all have of store shelves overflowing with packages of General Mills flour products, we are led to the voluntary recall – even though nothing was wrong with the product. This brings to mind empty store shelves as new product is provided to replace the old. One doesn’t even need to imagine the cost involved; the feeling of seeing an industry leader concerned enough to take no chances with the safety of its customers and their families is overwhelming.
It’s a page right out of good old-fashioned American tradition, and in line with everything the image of General Mills is built around. The addition of a helpful reminder on how to properly handle flour adds a final touch to this masterpiece by assigning no blame. Consumers aren’t responsible for mishandling flour, and neither is any other product or industry to blame. Instead, it’s a public service message that appears to come from genuine concern for consumer safety. It’s brilliant, because with it, all of the safe warm images we’re led through to get here subliminally reassure us that it must have been bad eggs, or some other contaminant, that led those poor 19 or so people developing E. coli infections. We subconsciously believe that it couldn’t have been General Mills, because a company so concerned and caring would never have allowed such a thing to happen. More, they didn’t blame anyone, because accidents happen and it’s what you do that matters more than who was responsible.
That is masterful control of the media circus, on par with the gravity-defying acts performed by Cirque du Soleil in the real circus. It’s also the result of a company genuinely invested in its consumer relations department.
However, the level of expertise seen in this demonstration isn’t something General Mills learned overnight. Unlike many companies who have catastrophically failed to address consumer concerns over the years, General Mills has invested heavily in public relations. Those investments have paid off as the company learned how to master the media circus in a way few other major brands have.
To quote Ami Anderson, director of marketing excellence for General Mills, speaking at the Incite SummitEast conference of 2014, “One of the things that’s changed in the past couple of years is how we build our brand architectures. At the top of the house used to be our brand’s ‘Promise’ – which was more like a higher order benefit. Now the top of the house is the brand’s ‘Purpose’ – what is the brand’s purpose? What problem are you solving for our consumers?”
That is what it’s really all about. Not “What are you promising to do?” but “Why are you doing it and what does it do for the customer?” It is that focus that has allowed an industry leader to take steps like those shown above, steps that are believable and actionable to real people. Consumers believe what they see, because it upholds the brand’s purpose, and it’s followed by visible action in the interests of the consumer.
If you’re a business owner or brand manager looking at how to improve your own company brand, you can benefit from this lesson. All you need to do is consider what happens when things don’t work out the way you wanted them to. In the case of General Mills, 38 people got sick over a six-month period, only half of whom even had any association with the company’s product or image. Eggs weren’t recalled. Neither was chicken. Flour was. Not because it was in the immediate interest of General Mills to recall its flour, but because it was in the interest of the company’s brand and brand image to protect consumers. By publicly and voluntarily recalling their product, General Mills has reassured consumers and built a stronger brand in the process.
The recall allowed General Mills to control the media, turning otherwise bad publicity into a show of strength and solidarity with its customer base. Both small and large businesses can learn from this example, and improve their own image and market share in the process.
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