How Cheerios transformed its Olympic campaign to cheer for food banks instead of athletes

Cheerios Canada was on the brink of activating a massive marketing campaign in support of the Tokyo Games when the rings were suddenly pulled out from under its feet.

Fawad Farrukh, marketing director, cereal Canada portfolio at parent company General Mills Canada, describes the planned program as an “Olympics mega-campaign.” It was to include extensive broadcast and online media, as well as social and limited-edition boxes featuring five of Canada’s premiere Olympic athletes.

And then, just like Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse (one of the athletes set to appear in the campaign), it was gone in an instant when the Games were cancelled in late March.

So, what do you do when you’re sitting on an Olympic-sized pool of advertising inventory and your carefully crafted plans are a smoking ruin? Do you sink, or do you swim like Penny Oleksiak (another sponsored athlete)?

“At that point we were faced with this decision ‘Where do we go from here?'” says Farrukh of the discussions that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Games’ cancellation.

After some initial disorientation, Cheerios quickly pivoted to plan “A.” As in animation. Working with agency partners Cossette and Veritas, it created a program to benefit one of the areas being hardest hit during the COVID crisis: Canada’s food banks, which are expected to see an up to 50% increase in use during the pandemic. Rather than leading cheers for Canada’s Olympians—as it has done for several Games—General Mills would lead cheers for Canada’s food banks.

Beyond monetary assistance—a $500,000 cash donation from Cheerios and the donation of $600,000 worth of food from General Mills—the hastily assembled (about two weeks) “Cheer for the food banks frontline” campaign features a call-to-action urging Canadians to donate to food banks. There’s even a virtual version of those cereal boxes, this time featuring the likenesses of food bank employees.Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 4.31.48 PM

The campaign centrepiece, though, is an animated spot developed by Halifax-based design and animation studio Wonderlust. It features a character called “Murray the brave,” a representation of the Canadian food bank employees doing such important work during the crisis.

The Message spoke with Farrukh about what it takes for a large multinational like General Mills to pivot so quickly, and the importance of having the right agency partners at such a critical time.

On the uncertainty surrounding the Olympics: Much of Cheerios’ summer marketing plans hinged on the Tokyo Games, but those plans were still up in the air in late March.

Finally, on March 22, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that it would not be sending athletes to Japan, effectively closing the door on General Mills’ planned activation.

“Before that announcement came, we were having to make some assumptions,” says Farrukh. “Candidly, the assumption we were going with before the announcement came… was that the Olympics would still happen, but without spectators.”

The IOC officially announced two days later, on March 24, that the Games had been postponed until 2021. Outside of the two world wars, it marked the first time in modern history that the Games had been disrupted, and it left sponsors around the world desperately seeking alternatives.

On the creation of the program: General Mills has a longstanding partnership with Food Banks of Canada, and quickly determined it would be the best allocation of its resources.

“We thought about all that’s going on right now, and the issue of food insecurity and the challenges these food banks and food bank workers are going through is something we want to be part of solving,” says Farrukh.

“Once we had that clarity, it was just [a matter of] pivoting and getting our partner agencies on the same page, and coming up with the fastest campaign we’ve ever done—two weeks in total—all focused on serving these workers and creating awareness around food banks.

On the limitations around developing new creative: “The first step for us was ‘Let’s think unshackled,'” says Farrukh. That eventually led to the creation of the “Murray the brave” character, while its roster of Olympians would be used to amplify the message.

“From a consumer standpoint we felt that the way this character would break through best was animation, and in this context it just so happened that was the way to go, just because of the challenges around filming,” says Farrukh.

“Breaking through has always been hard, and it’s even more difficult right now. We were constantly asking ourselves ‘Is this going to really break through to consumers so we can get the message across and invite them to donate?'”

Was there a feeling of stepping outside of the brand’s “comfort zone” with this work? “Not at all. The reason for that is we had a lot of clarity around what problem we were trying to solve, and a lot of clarity around what we were going to do and what we were not going to do.

“One of the buckets in what we’re not going to do was ‘We’re not going to over-think this.’ As long as we are being true to our brand purpose and the consumer, we’ll be just fine. That was a very good learning experience for us.”

What have you learned from this experience? “One thing we’ve learned is that big companies can do more with less as well as anyone else,” says Farrukh. “Less time in this case, or less creative [resources] at our disposal.

“We can be fast and agile by defining our objectives much more clearly, and then within that… not just defining what is in scope, but also what is out of scope. When you’re very clear on what is out of scope, as you go along on the journey you can be very clear in your mind: ‘I will not worry about that part of this.’ It just helps you move faster.”

On the importance of agency partners: “What we’ve also learned is that having a great partner roster you’re connected to…unlocks a lot,” says Farrukh. “If you build that great roster, they will move mountains for you as long as you trust them.

“As we put our agencies in the driver’s seat, they were more vocal about what they needed. For example, they needed decisions in hours versus days, so we created a framework to enable that agility.”

On how the interaction with agency partners has changed: “We’re not having a bunch of people get in a car and travel to one of our offices. It’s happening on Zoom, but the quality of the interaction is exactly the same. In fact we’re being more efficient because we’re removing travel time.

“We’re also getting in the habit of connecting more and for shorter periods, and therefore being much more agile. Instead of a one-hour meeting every week, a 15-minute meeting every day can help us be connected and get a lot more done.”

Discussions tend to be much more concise and to the point, says Farrukh. “When you don’t have the luxury of things like time on your side, or the production industry is closed, you’re forced to be more concise and thoughtful very quickly.

There’s been a lot of talk about what role, if any, brands have to play right now. What’s your perspective? “We need to listen to our consumers and assess our external environment to really gauge where we can add value, and then go and drive brand purpose in meaningful ways.

“The big lesson here is that brands have to start thinking of the people they’re serving before they think about themselves. If they think of the people they’re serving first, it makes the world a better place and ends up being better for the brand.

“It’s a win-win.”

What does the rest of the year look like for Cheerios from a marketing perspective: “In the very fast-moving world we’re in right now, with a lot of uncertainty, it’s not easy for brands to say ‘This is what I’m doing in six months,'” says Farrukh.

“What is easy for me to say is that I will follow where consumers are going and what their needs are. We will make sure we pivot our plans and campaigns to continue to serve them.”

It’s still unclear what comes after this, says Farrukh, but it will be firmly rooted in Cheerios’ stated brand purpose of bringing cheer to the world. “Our brand purpose is our compass,” he says. “As long as we’re rooted in this purpose, I’m sure we’ll be in a good place.”

Chris Powell