The New York Times broke the news about new General Mills legal terms on April 16. Here’s a portion of the “announcement” from the General Mills website:

We’ve updated our privacy policy. Please note we also have new legal terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.

Basically, if you download a coupon, “like” one of their product pages on Facebook, enter a contest, or interact with the company in any number of ways, you forfeit your right to sue the company.

Your only recourse for resolving a dispute, such as a defective or mislabeled product, would be through informal negotiation or binding arbitration.

After three days of being torn to shreds by both customers and commentators, the new legal language was removed on April 19.

Most agree that this was a dumb decision made dumber by the dumb way it was handled by General Mills, a company with an outstanding reputation that has been at least temporarily tarnished.

Here’s how General Mills shot itself in the foot. Repeatedly.

They rewarded customer loyalty and enthusiasm with a backhanded slap.

 

So you took the time to “like” the Cheerios fan page on Facebook? You downloaded a coupon with a plan to spend your hard-earned money on one of our products?

To reward your support, we’ll try to remove accountability from our company should something go wrong with one of our products.

I‘m not here to debate whether or not arbitration is beneficial to customers as General Mills suggests in its blog that explained the removal of the new legal terms. I’ll let someone much smarter than me make that argument if there’s an argument to be made.

Public perception – and that’s the only one that matters – states that General Mills tried to use dirty legal tricks to prevent people from seeking justice if something went wrong with a General Mills product.

According to the court of public opinion, General Mills went behind the backs of their customers and tried to trample their legal rights. That’s not what I would expect from a company that uses a heart-shaped cereal bowl on the box of its most well-known product.

 

They made the change too quietly.

 

As reported by The New York Times, General Mills announced the change on a thin gray bar on the top of its home page. I’m not aware of any notifications to fans and customers – you know, the people who actually buy these products but would never go to the General Mills website.

If the new policy, for example, affects every Facebook fan of every one of your brands, don’t those fans deserve some kind of heads up with an explanation? Something more than a line on the home page of a website they have no reason to visit?

Also, can you explain why a “Like” on Facebook or entry into a contest should be in any way connected to how I seek resolution to a legal dispute stemming from the use of your product?

 

They didn’t make any company representatives available for an interview.

 

When The New York Times reported the story and people started going ballistic, General Mills could have at least attempted to take control of the message, especially if they felt the new policy was truly in the best interests of its customers.

Instead, they let it fester. And explode.

I’m not saying the outcome would have been any different. But if you’re going to take such a controversial step, you damn well better be ready to man up and explain yourself.

 

They rationalized more than they apologized.

 

Here are a few snippets from the General Mills blog. I encourage you to read the entire post for context. By the way, I’m sure their customers love being referred to as “consumers”.

Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread…

So it’s our fault as customers for not reading and interpreting the new policy correctly. Got it.

How about some accountability? What they should have said is, “Those terms and our intentions were terribly miscommunicated.”

We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled.

Shouldn’t the person with the complaint decide how to pursue resolution?

We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction.

Seriously? Why would you expect anything else when you make an announcement that’s sure to be perceived as infringing on the rights of your customers?

At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.

Again, your customers are too stupid to understand what you were really saying. How could we have let those noble intentions fly right over our heads? Perhaps you shouldn’t have allowed your legal policy to be mischaracterized and misunderstood.

Finally, as if to say, “Oh yeah – almost forgot”, we get an apology at the end of the post – after trying to say they didn’t do anything wrong.

The folks from General Mills might want to take a lesson from the apology from

Maker’s Mark, which angered customers by announcing it would reduce the alcohol level in its bourbon.

Here’s a portion of that apology:

Dear Friends,

Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down…

…Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.

We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created.

Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.

As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what’s on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.

That’s a heartfelt apology. Sure, it was a business decision, but it sounds authentic and remorseful. Referring to customers as “friends”, “ambassadors” and “fans” – not “consumers” – is helpful, too.

Instead of making excuses, be accountable, admit your mistake and show you care about your customers.

 

They used the “everyone else is doing it” excuse.

 

While under fire, General Mills said in a statement:

While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach.

On the General Mills blog, equally ridiculous statements were made:

Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.

Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim.

Yes, credit card companies and mobile phone companies, as reported by The New York Times, have implemented similar policies.

That doesn’t make it right.

I expect credit card companies and mobile operators to sneak in fees, raise interest rates and do other shady stuff. I’m not happy about it, but I view that as an unfortunate reality in certain parts of life.

Sorry, but I hold the company that makes my daughter’s breakfast cereal to a higher standard. She won’t get sick or have an allergic reaction if Verizon Wireless hits me with an extra fee for $5.

“Everyone else is doing it” is an excuse used by a desperate person or company when backed into a corner.

It’s also childish.

If you can’t think for yourself in the first place, you have to at least know when to admit guilt and ask for forgiveness.

Final Thoughts

 

General Mills will survive this blunder. As dumb as this decision was, and as poorly as it was communicated and addressed, the damage could have been much worse.

They bungled the response, but they ultimately did the right thing.

However, making decisions that sacrifice the wants, needs and rights of the customer for reasons that only benefit the brand – whether that perception is fact or not – can have dire consequences.

An out-of-touch, aloof response that partly deflects blame to the very customers who are being victimized only makes matters worse.

Customer trust is sacred and should never be taken lightly, whether you run a startup or a major corporation. Clear communication that maintains and builds this trust is critical.

Like it or not, customers are in charge. Mess with them at your own risk.

 

What do you think? Is the General Mills backlash deserved or overblown?

 

About the author: Scott McKelvey
scott mckelvey

I’m a copywriter, marketing consultant, lifelong New Jersey resident, husband to a beautiful wife and father to two beautiful girls. I love playing with my daughters, a day at the boardwalk, sarcasm, craft beer and grilling. I despise beating around the bush, synchronized swimming, Toddlers & Tiaras and onions. Most people don’t know I used to be a radio DJ and once wrote, produced and voiced a commercial for the TV show 24. Two places I want to visit before I die are Ireland and Norway, the homes of my ancestors. One place I never want to revisit is my first apartment because my creepy landlord, Monty, freaked me out. That just about covers it.

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