On September 21, 2017, General Mills announced it is breaking a promise to remove artificial colors and flavorings from their cereals because of negative feedback from consumers. And I’m guessing this reversal isn’t coming easy for them. I can only imagine the number of meetings that must have happened for them to come to this new decision.
Two years ago, in response to consumer trends towards healthier, simpler, and more natural foods, General Mills saw an opportunity to revamp their long-time recipes. They did their best to preserve the shape and flavor of their cereals, but couldn’t match the vibrant colors in Trix cereal that only come from artificial food dyes. Despite a bump up in sales, traditionalists were outraged and flooded their customer call-in lines and social media sites with feedback. (You can read some of the funnier tweets here.) The sentiment was clear: These fans loved Trix exactly as they were, and weren’t interested in changing the formula — no matter how much healthier it might be.
So, much like McDonald’s and Coca Cola, General Mills was put in an awkward position. Do they choose to get on board with the future trends (in this case, creating healthier food) or commit to the status quo on behalf of their passionate, long-time customers? In the end, they decided to go back to the original recipe, including the artificial colors.
We all know that when you know better, you do better. But was this change the result of a lot of self-reflection, analysis, and thinking about what kind of customer they want to win over? I don’t know. That’s unclear from the outside.
This situation brings up a question that many successful business owners and managers have to ask themselves at one point or another:
What do you do when you want to change but your loyal customers don’t want you to?
The answer to this question is deeply individual and gets at why you’re in business to begin with. Most of us can answer this question by going back to our purpose statement. Why are we here? What change to we seek to make in the world?
If the answer is to delight generations of hungry people with playful shapes, colors, and flavors (not typically found in nature) then, by all means, stick with what’s been working. In fact, I’d advise that these companies double down. In the face of a trend to be healthier, manufacturers of sugary cereals almost need to go the other way and get sweeter, brighter, and more ridiculous to stand out from the earthy colored granola lining the shelves.
On the other hand, if the company’s purpose is to feed hungry people with simple, natural products that will help fuel them through a busy day of work or learning, then that’s their true north. Just because the times are changing doesn’t mean your business has to.
By going back on their promise from two years ago, General Mills showed that they’re not as sure of their company’s purpose statement as they should be. Flip-flopping like this is a surefire way to upset all the different parts of your customer base, and it just puts you back at square one in the end. Besides, if you really want to test the waters in the next big trend, you do so by creating an entirely new product — not messing with the tried and true. This way, you don’t alienate your old, loyal customers, but simply gain new ones.
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