Mar 7, 2024 - Business

Kellogg CEO faces backlash over "cereal for dinner" comment

Illustration of a man in a business suit in the middle of a giant fruit loop in milk

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Messaging that lands in a marketing spot might not get the same reception
when coming out of the CEO's mouth.

  • WK Kellogg Co. learned this the hard way after its CEO Gary Pilnick appeared on CNBC and encouraged cash-strapped consumers to consider eating cereal for dinner.

Why it matters: Kellogg's current PR crisis highlights the power of optics and the importance of empowering the right messenger with the right talking points.

Context: Kellogg has been running the "cereal for dinner" ad campaign since 2022, with little to no fanfare.

  • Yes, but: There is key difference in the message the ad portrays — cereal can spice up a monotonous dinner menu — and what Pilnick said — buy our cereal if you're tight on cash and serve it for dinner.

Between the lines: Positioning name-brand cereal as a solution to rising food costs is what ignited the firestorm of backlash across social media.

  • "The reality is the only way a brand like Kellogg should comment on the rising cost of groceries is at the business level or by announcing a program or donation to help ... not by having a CEO tout their marketing campaign as the solution," says marketing consultant Allie Robino.
  • Plus, the optics of Pilnick standing in the courtyard of a 5-star hotel while delivering the message only made matters worse.

State of play: The initial comments were made on Feb. 21, but the backlash didn't start until five days later.

  • Since then, the brand and CEO have gone radio silent, which gave way to more social media chatter and press coverage.
  • Users across LinkedIn have torched the comment section of Pilnick's recent posts and those on TikTok are encouraging a boycott of the brand.
  • The hashtag "boycottkelloggs" has been viewed roughly 23 million times on TikTok as of March 5.
Sentiment of Kellogg's  recent media coverage
Data: MuckRack; Note:The sentiment assigned to an article is based on scoring applied from an  open-source natural language processing library to articles published online and their headline; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Zoom in: Kellogg typically receives neutral coverage, however, sentiment quickly soured following Pilnick's "cereal for dinner" comments.

  • These comments attracted roughly three times more readers than Kellogg's average news readership.
  • Most negative coverage landed on Feb. 26 — which is also the day that readership spiked, per data provided by Memo.

Reality check: Consumer brands continue to be scrutinized for "shrinkflation" practices, while the cost of cereal has increased 28% over the last four years, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

  • And if Kellogg raises prices in the future, its communications team should prepare for Pilnick's comments to bubble to the surface.

What we're hearing: Nothing. Kellogg and its PR representatives have ignored repeated requests for comment.

What they're saying: What started as a bit of PR drama has turned into a crisis due to the company's lack of response, says Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

  • During the five-day window between the initial comment and the social media firestorm, Kellogg had the opportunity to acknowledge the mistake, clarify what he meant to say, and explain how this would be avoided in the future.
  • Instead, the silence enabled more coverage and social chatter, which has kept the story trending almost two weeks later.
  • "This is a textbook example of what not to do," Argenti told Axios.

What to watch: Consumers across social media are calling on Kellogg to lower its prices and have organized a boycott of the brand from April 1 to June 30.

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