Learning from Kellogg’s “Let Them Eat Flakes” Moment

by: Issues: May/June 2024. Categories: IBJ Insights and Marketing.

When Kellogg CEO Gary Pilnick agreed to appear on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street show earlier this year, he didn’t go into the interview expecting to generate calls for his head. The plan was to talk about his company’s cereal-for-dinner ad campaign amid news reports of the impact of inflation on household food budgets.

“The cereal category has always been quite affordable, and it tends to be a great destination when consumers are under pressure,” Pilnick said. “If you think about the cost of cereal for a family versus what they might otherwise do, that’s going to be much more affordable.”

After Pilnick finished explaining how the Kellogg’s brand can help consumers mitigate the impact of inflation on food budgets, CNBC asked if his cereal-for-dinner message might somehow “land the wrong way” with consumers. The executive said he didn’t think that would be the case, noting that 25 per cent of cereal consumption already takes place outside of breakfast and that this appears to be a growing trend.

At the time, Kellogg’s cereal-for-dinner campaign—which encourages families to “give chicken the night off”—had launched months earlier, so the messaging wasn’t new. And there is no question that breakfast products can make a relatively economical evening meal, so it’s easy to understand why Pilnick wasn’t worried about a negative response.

Nevertheless, the CNBC interview triggered a storm. Pilnick and his company were painted as out of touch with the economic realities of the average consumer. “This fool is making $4 million a year,” one TikToker said. “Do you think he’s feeding his kids cereal for dinner?”

As the Guardian noted, the executive’s comments were even compared to the “let them eat cake” phrase frequently attributed (without evidence) to Marie Antoinette before her beheading amid the French Revolution.

As Kellogg’s found itself attacked across social media, some consumers insisted the company had benefited from rising food prices and calls for a boycott emerged. And this unexpected backlash illustrates how quickly a media opportunity can turn into a media crisis.

If companies aren’t quick to respond to consumers’ concerns, they can find themselves buffeted by a barrage of negative media attention. To be prepared for a media misstep, companies should consider the following steps.

Have a crisis plan: When it comes to crisis communications, the best strategy is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. That means developing a crisis communications plan before something stirs up unwanted media attention. As a starting point, Leeza Hoyt, a Los Angeles-based PR professional, points out every company should identify issues related to its business that may arise. In a Forbes article on best practices, Hoyt notes: “By identifying potential crises before they occur and devising strategies and tactics in advance, PR professionals set themselves up to be much better equipped to handle unexpected situations and minimize damage wherever possible.” The overall goal of having a crisis communications plan is to keep the company from scrambling to address an issue when it arises and to avoid a “from the hip” response. The plan itself doesn’t have to be lengthy, but it does need to be detailed and comprehensive. It should define who will be called in to assess the situation, who will communicate with the public and who won’t, and what communication channels will be employed.

“When it comes to crisis communication, a good rule of thumb to follow says the person who caused the problem should not be the one who fixes it.”

Let spokespeople do their job: When it comes to crisis communication, a good rule of thumb to follow says the person who caused the problem should not be the one who fixes it. In a situation like Kellogg’s Pilnick interview, the right play is to have the CEO step back while the designated crisis communications professional steps in. With a crisis communications plan in place, the course for the new spokesperson to take will already be clear.

Have a Plan B: When the person responsible for a communications misstep is the designated crisis communicator, the responsibility for engaging with the public should fall to someone else. Identifying fallback communicators in a crisis plan and making sure they are prepared to play the role will increase the plan’s overall value and strategic integrity.

Apologize and clarify: Offering an apology to the public will almost always be a key element of crisis communications. Even if a company decides it hasn’t done anything wrong, it should still apologize for the confusion that its comments or actions may have caused. In the case of Pilnick’s comments, consumers suffering from rising grocery prices saw, rightly or wrongly, a lack of sensitivity from a wealthy executive leading a company perceived to have benefited from the pain inflation has caused. In responding, Kellogg’s could have explained its “cereal for dinner” campaign wasn’t meant as financial advice, but rather was an effort to point out meal options that many families may not have considered. In effect, this would communicate that the company miscommunicated its message and wasn’t being insensitive to the impact of inflation. In situations where a company is clearly in the wrong, an apology should not be the only communication offered. Relations with consumers will benefit from an explanation of the steps the company has taken or plans to take to ensure similar issues don’t arise in the future.

Be open to dialogue: When conflict occurs—such as angry consumers announcing a boycott of a cereal company—a willingness to engage in open communication can help to restore confidence and move people toward reconciliation. This can involve inviting the public to a Q&A session where consumers can voice concerns and seek clarifications. Committing to a conversation is also helpful because there is never a best one-size-fits-all response. Savvy companies engage with crisis communications as a form of dialogue, carefully noting the impact their response is having. If consumer frustration escalates, crisis communications may need to escalate as well. Keep bailing until the ship is safe. Engaging in a dialogue also ensures both parties see the full picture. Companies can get a clear understanding of why their comments sparked an emotional response, which can help them to avoid making similar missteps in the future. They can also create a forum in which they can explain what led to their comments and, in the case of a misunderstanding, their actual intent.

Rebuild trust: When a crisis erodes public trust, companies should take appropriate steps to re-establish it. In some cases, this can involve taking action to improve the quality, safety, or reliability of products or services. In others, the company may need to enhance its efforts to show its commitment to certain values. For Kellogg’s, addressing the concerns triggered by the “cereal for dinner” messaging could involve initiatives designed to help communities struggling with food insecurity. If the perception is that Kellogg’s is out of touch with community needs or not invested in being socially responsible, it could demonstrate its resolve in those areas by donating to food banks or launching food donation programs.

Crisis communications can’t keep a crisis from occurring. But when you have a plan, it can keep a crisis from escalating. By being careful in how it communicates, willing to engage in a dialogue, and committed to re-establishing trust, when necessary, a company facing a crisis can emerge with a stronger brand than before the trouble occurred.

Leave a Reply

Please submit respectful comments only, including full name, professional title, and contact information (only name and title will be posted). Required fields are marked *