Brand Values Q&A with Former General Mills CMO Mark Addicks (Part 1)

This is part one of our two-part 'Your Brands Can Save the World' blog post series.

You remember Robert F. Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gloria Steinem as voices for social justice in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, some of America’s boldest advocates for social change, LGBT rights and racial tolerance are brand names: Target, Campbell’s Soup, Chevrolet, Ben & Jerry’s, Burger King, Under Armour and Dove. At the forefront of brands taking a stand has been Minneapolis-based General Mills, whose “Gracie” Cheerios spot was a landmark for racial inclusion in marketing. 

So our PR agency was delighted to host an event featuring former General Mills Chief Marketing Officer Mark Addicks (pictured above right), in partnership with the International Association of Business Communicators-Minnesota. What follows is the first of a two-part dive into Addicks’ lessons for brand marketers.

Make yourself a bowl of Cheerios, grab some Yoplait yogurt and prepare to be inspired:

First off, tell us about the development of your two “Gracie” 30-second TV spots, featuring a black father, a white mother and their adorable daughter. It started with “Just Checking” followed by the extraordinary 2014 Super Bowl ad.

“To give proper credit, those Cheerios TV spots were the work of some great marketers at General Mills, along with our agency Saatchi & Saatchi. My role as CMO was to inspire people and stimulate their thinking. Given that — when the agency first brought their storyboards for the spot in which the father has Cheerios poured over his heart, it was a nice Cheerios spot with a white family. Someone in the General Mills casting production group, which had been pushing our teams to have more diverse casting, sparked the idea of using an interracial family.

The first time I saw the “Just Checking” spot, my reaction was...FINALLY! Because when I first worked on the Cheerios brand, it was 60 years old, and we were so careful with the brand. For example, we had never shown a baby in a highchair with Cheerios, because we were afraid consumers would say: ‘Oh, Cheerios is not for me, it’s for babies.’ What I learned from Cheerios is that you must tell your story in the most interesting way possible. With a white family, this spot would merely have been reminder advertising — and we would not be talking about it today.”


Were you surprised at the controversy this mixed-race family generated? I find it courageous that on the General Mills site you can read this online comment about the image of a married black father and white mother: “I am not pleased with your liberal agenda being pushed down our throats.” 

“To be honest, I didn’t expect much blowback. At that time, there was a lot of diverse casting on TV, but when megabrands like Cheerios address mixed marriage, it’s different. When diverse casting hits something that’s part of Americana — an iconic brand like Cheerios — that you hit a nerve. But there’s a ton of evidence that if you have interesting people telling your brand story, you’ll build more awareness and get more product trial. Your job as a marketer is to attract consumer attention by exploring an underlying truth, revealing how they can be a better person, a better mom. And those Cheerios ads did that very well. “

In the past, a campaign might feature a Latino family to reach the Hispanic market, or an African-American to connect with the black community. So, was “Gracie” designed to reach interracial families or Betty Crocker’s “Betty Loves All Families” campaign aimed at the LGBT audience?

“Surprisingly, no. That Betty Crocker campaign was created for millennial moms and beyond. This campaign was meant to modernize the brand, and explain who Betty Crocker is today. Because many of these product categories are automatic, one of your questions as a marketer is: ‘how do I get a consumer to rethink my category, and what our brand could mean for them now?’ That’s what we meant to do with our Betty Crocker booth at Gay Pride festivals. We were saying: ‘Betty Crocker is just as meaningful today, no matter what your family looks like. ’

As a marketer, I’d add — although the numbers for same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships in the LGBT community are relatively small, there are a lot of domestic partnerships among heterosexual consumers, as well.” 


What kind of ROI can a company expect from launching a social change campaign? Under Armour claims that they’ve generated a 28 percent sales lift thanks to Droga 5’s “I Will What I Want Campaign,” along with earning $35 million in PR value for the brand. Can sales increase be a goal of a brand values campaign?

Misty_Copeland.jpg“Yes, your ROI can definitely include sales. Look, short-term, every brand has to market their product day-to-day to get sales — that’s your coupons and sales promotions. But marketers also have to do things long-term to make sure their brand stays meaningful, relevant and in a consumer’s consideration set. You have to innovate with an eye five years out.

I argue you want to build brand relevancy for a coming generation. For example Under Armour, largely a male brand, started with a very low base with women consumers. That 28 percent sales lift with women from “I Will What I Want” featuring dancer Misty Copeland is a win-win. Internally, everyone goes “yeah, our sales are up!”

But today, with the lack of trust in the consumer segment, people are asking, ‘why should I pay attention to you? What are you going to do that really helps me?’ Great brands help people. That’s the brand’s job. To help you be the person you want to be.” 

USA Today praised the Honey Maid “This is Wholesome” campaign with these words: “it’s a brand new multi-colored, multisexual world of advertising, with mainstream brands plowing ahead and all but ignoring the expected social media blowback, with one eye on demographics and another on survival.” Your thoughts? 

“I like that Honey Maid campaign a lot, and it’s because the images get you to reconsider the Honey Maid cracker brand, which is about 90 years old. When’s the last time anybody talked about graham crackers? By redefining the word ‘wholesome,’ consumers noticed the category again. It brought graham crackers back into the cultural conversation. Honey Maid did get a backlash from some people on Facebook saying, ‘I hate you,’ but they had well thought-out follow-up on social media. Their people were ready to go, which created another cultural ripple for their brand. As a marketer, you have to think ahead. What could happen next? How do you bring your brand to life next?”

For the first time in nearly 25 years, you’re outside the walls of General Mills. You worked with legendary national agencies like Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Erickson, along with local firms like Zeus Jones. What have you learned from being a free agent, on the outside?

“Here’s the most interesting life experience I’ve had since leaving General Mills. I spent the last eight months in Texas, caring for my dad. He died last December. I was in his hospice room, and here’s what goes on there: the TV is on all the time in every room. Given my former role working on TV spots for General Mills, I’d walk out of the hospice each night at 10 pm to go home and I’d hear all of these TVs showing CPG ads. And I thought  these are the consumer impressions those advertisers are making! I love advertising, but I can see most consumers saying, “please don’t make me watch this ad.”

I invite you to sit in a hospital room and view the ad clutter 80 to 90 percent of all TV ads are now 15 seconds, which means marketers are asking people to wade through 16 of those things in any one ad pod.”

So what about PR, event marketing and social media content, outside of TV ad buys?

“Today, the messaging about your brand should start as news. I think public relations is highly underrated. PR, along with social media, can explain the context for why I should care about your brand. Consumers are much more interested in news than in paid advertising. I have done my fair share of that interruptive advertising; it can be wallpaper. Your goal is to tell your brand story in a way that surprises, delights, intrigues or provokes me, in a creative format that I’ve never seen before.”

The Esurance “Equal Dreams” campaign, created by Leo Burnett, is remarkable. Since 2011, Esurance has granted marriage discounts to its customers, even those who live in states where their marriage is not yet legal. So inside the company, their behavior matches what they TV ads say about same-sex marriage. How important is it that a company’s internal actions reflect the same dedication to diversity and tolerance that they depict in their ads?

“It’s critical, because marketers today live in a transparent world. Your own employees will tell you whether what consumers see in your ad is not the reality that they as employees know. In fact, whenevAll_Wedding_Dreams_are_Equal.jpger you start a brand values campaign like Esurance (at right), you should ask: how can we take what we’re doing with the brand externally and turn it into an inspirational thing for our employees? If you’re taking on a cause like breast cancer research how do you start that with your employee base? That’s why the Dove campaign and Unilever ran into problems  people said wait a minute, you’re advocating for “Real Beauty” acceptance over here, and then you’re selling cosmetics over there, which is odd.” 

Auto News said of Chevrolet’s “The New Family” campaign for its Traverse SUV: “While automakers have long advertised in a targeted way to the LGBT market, they’ve typically avoided the kinds of bold marketing moves that could muddle their brand image. These concerns have kept LGBT messaging and imagery largely confined to media viewed only by the gay community.” You mentioned a Home Depot ad you saw challenges the idea that a campaign featuring members of one minority group must be targeted at that same audience. Can you explain?

“Right. Back around 2002, I saw this Home Depot TV spot. It was incredible. It was a DIY ad with a Hispanic couple who was clearly working class. This was their first home, and they were hooking up washers and dryers by themselves. And in the spot, they kept on returning to Home Depot. It clearly communicated that at Home Depot, they don’t just sell you products, they help you build a home. As a marketer, I was curious why Home Depot was running an ad featuring a Hispanic couple for the general market, not just for Hispanics.

So I tracked down the CMO at Home Depot. He told me: “the funniest thing happened. We shot two ads: one for the Hispanic community and one for the general, white community. In the general TV spot, the white couple are doing the same thing as the Hispanic couple, setting up a washer and dryer. And suddenly in California, where Home Depot was running the Hispanic ad, we saw all of these general comments about it. The overall community loved the ad, while the ad with the white couple did not give us sales lift at all. Consumers believed in the Hispanic couple. They told us: ‘Those people can’t afford someone to hook up their washer and dryer. They are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They are true Americans.’ In contrast, when the general public saw the TV spot with the white couple, they thought: ‘I don’t think they’re hooking up the washer by themselves.'”

Watch for Part II of our Q&A interview with Mark Addicks by subscribing to the MaccaPR blog!

Image Sources: General Mills / Springs Equality Under Armour / YouTube / Co.Create

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Brand Strategy, PR Perspectives

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