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General Mills serves up social values in new Cheerios campaign

When cereal giant General Mills Inc. faced criticism over a television commercial last year that featured a biracial family, the company could have backed down. Instead it brought the family back for its most expensive and high-profile commercial of the year, in the 2014 Super Bowl.

Now General Mills Canada is following suit.

The new Canadian campaign for Cheerios presents a deliberately diverse collection of real stories about love, with television commercials and longer online videos. The stories include a physically disabled man and his able-bodied wife, a gay couple talking about how they adopted their daughter, who is of a different race, among others.

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"We were inspired by the work we saw in the U.S.," said General Mills Canada's director of marketing for cereal, Jason Doolan. "...What we realized at that point was, by simply reflecting the diversity of real people, there's an opportunity to engage in a social conversation that is important to a lot of people."

The ads, which will run until the end of April and continually online, mark the first time that General Mills has advertised all of its Cheerios sub-brands – including Honey Nut, Multigrain and original – under one campaign, rather than marketing each separately. And the company is increasing its marketing spending to make sure it gets the message out.

"This is by far, the single biggest spend of the year for my business, and it is the single biggest Cheerios investment we've made in the 10 years I've been on the business," Mr. Doolan said.

The brand is not alone. Many marketers are realizing the value of projecting a more diverse image of love, and of families, in their ads. That includes the 90-year-old graham cracker brand Honey Maid, travel service Expedia.com, and, in Canada, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. and BCE Inc.

"People are starting to really reward those marketers who share their values," Mr. Doolan said.

Research shows that for younger consumers especially, values are playing a bigger role in purchasing decisions. People want to spend money with companies they feel are in line with issues that are important to them.

Before February's Super Bowl broadcast, General Mills vice-president of marketing in the U.S., Camille Gibson, said in a corporate blog post that the ad "really represents what the brand stands for ... who we are, what we mean and our point of view."

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It is also a way for a product in a tired category to reinvigorate its image.

The cereal category has been in decline in Canada for the past two years, Mr. Doolan said. Recently there have been signs that growth is returning, but cereal manufacturers have work to do to win back customers.

Cheerios, which is in a first-place position with 14-per-cent share of the cereal category in Canada, has a vested interest in this.

"We've got the opportunity to invite people back into the category and help them to understand that the category can be highly relevant for them again," Mr. Doolan said.

The campaign, developed by ad agency Cossette, is based around the concept of "The Cheerios Effect," the phenomenon where surface tension causes objects floating in liquid to gravitate toward each other or toward the side of the container.

The ads use this as an analogy for human connection: 15-second television spots will introduce the people featured in various personal stories, pointing viewers to longer versions of those stories online.

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One video, for example, profiles Savanna and Justin Hines. Savanna tells the story of seeking out a relationship with her now-husband after she was touched by his music. Justin has a rare genetic joint condition called Larsen syndrome, and uses a wheelchair. They talk about how that difference in physical ability is not an issue for them.

In another, André and Jonathan describe how they fell in love, and tell the story of adopting their daughter Raphaëlle. In the emotional video, they acknowledge that this would not have been possible for a gay couple in earlier times.

The campaign invites people to submit their own stories as well. Their texts will be placed over videos of the floating cereal. Mr. Doolan hopes some of the stories will also be developed into longer films online.

"There is a growing cynicism toward advertising," he said. "People are increasingly turned off by the hard sell. ... We have to get at the things that matter to consumers."

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