General Mills unlocks mobile rewards with back-to-school campaign

General Mills started a mobile-based campaign that offers students and schools a chance to win rewards during back-to-school season. The marketer of brands such as Cheerios, Yoplait and Nature Valley launched the “Unlock Brighter Futures” effort as part of its Box Tops for Education initiative to raise money for schools.

With more people shopping for groceries online since the onset of the pandemic, the campaign includes a new integration with retailers that offer delivery or curbside pickup. The change in shopping behavior has pushed consumer goods companies like General Mills to seek a greater share of people’s online shopping baskets and replenish them automatically.

“The path to purchase has really shifted a lot in the last year, so we are capturing that [e-commerce] demand that COVID accelerated,” Stephanie Steidl, commerce manager at General Mills, said. “This year, we felt it was totally appropriate to create a promotion for our families that are buying our products that benefit them, but also benefit their schools.”

The shift in consumer habits drove a 39% gain in e-commerce sales from a year earlier during the first quarter of 2021, according to the Census Bureau. The growth was faster than the 17% gain in total retail sales that included spending at brick-and-mortar stores.

Unlike the days when students would clip Box Tops coupons from cereal boxes and bring them to school to raise money, the process is now mostly digital. General Mills introduced a Box Tops app two years ago, and began asking consumers to register in the program. The company has given more than $940 million back to schools since launching Box Tops in 1996, Steidl said.

The “Unlock Brighter Futures” sweepstakes offers consumers several ways to enter, whether they order General Mills products online or buy them at a store. Using a smartphone camera to scan QR codes on specially marked Box Tops products opens a mobile site that shows a school locker with a combination lock. The site asks visitors to enter a six-digit locker combination from the product packaging for a chance to win.

The sweepstakes is offering a grand prize of $10,000 to the winner and another $10,000 to the winner’s choice of eligible schools. Entrants also have chances to win laptops, backpacks, gift cards and bonus Box Tops for a selected school. The sweepstakes runs until Nov. 30.

Integrating ads with online shopping

Mobile interactions are a central part of both the sweepstakes and General Mills’ efforts to drive online orders for retailers that sell its products. The consumer goods company enlisted MikMak — a startup that originally was a mobile video shopping network before pivoting to the enterprise market — to tie its online advertising to retailers’ digital shopping carts. MikMak is integrated with the e-commerce platforms of store chains and intermediaries like Instacart and Shipt.

“Through this partnership with MikMak, we’re all about meeting the consumer where they are, giving them the opportunity to buy when they want and where they want,” Steidl said. “You click ‘shop now’ and then MikMak gives you the capability to select your retailer partner.”

General Mills also uses MikMak to track online consumer behavior and measure the response to its ad placements. In addition to programmatic media buys, MikMak helps to track campaigns on a variety of digital media outlets including Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube.

“[Brands] immediately can close the loop on attribution,” Rachel Tipograph, founder and CEO of MikMak. “The reason why this is so important is because the consumer today is really in the driver’s seat.”


“[Brands] immediately can close the loop on attribution… The consumer today is really in the driver’s seat.”

Rachel Tipograph

Founder and CEO, MikMak


Because consumers can choose from such a broad variety of brands, retailers and fulfillment options, marketers need to keep pace with their changing shopping habits, especially amid the pandemic, Tipograph said.

“With everything that’s changing so quickly in the world, consumers’ preferences and how they want to shop is changing in real time,” she said. “Being able to capture consumer demand based on what’s happening and ensure that they’re putting a General Mills product into the cart is what we’re focused on doing. When it comes to the behavior of e-grocery, it’s a game of ‘first to basket,’ because after you purchase an item, it’s replenish, replenish, replenish.”

Because General Mills gathers a variety of shopper data through Box Tops, it’s better positioned for marketing partnerships with brands in non-food categories that also end up in shopping carts as consumers seek greater convenience.

“When a mom is purchasing back-to-school items, whether it’s grocery or school supplies, that’s not the only thing that she’s putting in a cart. She’s also putting in pet supplies, home care items as well as beauty products,” Tipograph said. “When you think about opportunities for growth for a company like General Mills, being able to see that basket-level data and understanding how consumers are buying their products can lead to white space in terms of amazing partnership opportunities.”

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