Cheerios Embraces Ethnic Norm Shifting, But There Are Brand Missteps

07 Feb 2014|spalacios

Everyone is talking about Cheerios!

The New York Times (article), Fox News, MSNBC and others have made an inter-ethnic family the cause de jour (MSN’s take).

Some marketers are continuing to push the envelope on ethnic norm shifts in the U.S. and what that means to their brand.

Coke also got into the conversation in yesterday’s SuperBowl, with its “American the Beautiful” spot (coverage here). Recently, Coke was admonished for removing a shot of a gay marriage celebration in an ad that ran in Ireland, while keeping it in Norway (said ad). These examples speak to brands trying to correctly position themselves along social norms, sometimes inviting welcomed controversy, but many times inviting just the opposite. It is likely this topic will continue to play a central role in the execution of strategies as they relate to changing social norms and redefine where lines are drawn.

The premise at the center of the debate is that ethnicity norms have shifted with demographic shifts, requiring ethnicity to be more prevalent in brand, product and communications strategy. Those brands that execute against this shift will navigate the issues of authenticity, potential alienation of existing customers and just plain poor (or good) judgment. Brands consciously or unconsciously negotiate a theory of social norms called the Return Potential Model (more here), whereby they try to find the “range of acceptable behavior” that gets to the highest point of maximum return. Basically, they are trying to hit the sweet spot of a moving social norm.

Let’s review some of the issues:


This attribute is key to most brands. One challenge for certain American “heritage” brands will be how to reconcile their long and storied histories with the history of ethnicity in this country. A storied brand like Budweiser is challenged in their “End of Prohibition” ad (on YouTube) that speaks to the legacy of the brand over history, with nary a Black, Hispanic or Asian in sight. This does not mean that the King of Beers cannot take advantage of the a more ethnic inclusive approach (it is, including a recent collaboration with Jay Z), it just has to be conscious that its history may not support its relevance and balance, accordingly.

Potential Alienation

On too many occasions a brand manager has worried about negative letters from customers complaining about Spanish on the label, Spanish on the Billboard and even Black people in the commercial. Cheerios found this out last year with its bi-racial family ad “Just Checking” (also on YouTube). In this instance, Cheerios pushed the envelope a bit further for a “mainstream” heritage brand. The criticism, however, may have imbued greater social relevance to Cheerios than before.

Poor Judgment

Mountain Dew got into trouble when collaborating with Tyler the Creator in what was called at the time “the most racist ad ever” (via YouTube). Tyler the Creator’s efforts received more than two million online viewers before the commercial went to broadcast TV and he was truly surprised that the fantastical nature of the story could be conceived as representative of social reality. He did not know where to draw the line.

There are bound to be missteps along this road as ethnic norm shifts re-define what is passé, appropriate or on the new cutting edge. This past Halloween saw a debate on what costumes are appropriate or insensitive after actress Julianne Hough dressed in black face to portray an actress on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” (as you can see here).

Could it be that Julianne, a millennial, was being crass and insensitive, or does her youth make her more prone to post-racial America mentality?

With these executions, brands will increasingly be forced to make judgments that may play differently to different generations and ethnicities of consumers. They will have to discern the role and relevance of their latent equities and find where to draw the line. Along the way there will be political and social commentary and fallout, as this past week illustrates. Cheerios is leading the way!


Written by Stephen Palacios, Executive Vice President, Added Value US.

This article was originally written for Huff Post’s Black Voices blog:

Image credit: Coca Cola

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