Unpopular Opinion: General Mills Risks Undermining Its Brand

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Cereal maker General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) has been going out of its way lately to identify itself with lifestyles that aren't considered mainstream. 

While the mixed-raced family in its Cheerios commercial absurdly generated controversy, the company seemed to deliberately thumb its corporate nose at traditional family values when its Lucky Charms brand celebrated alternative lifestyles by developing a whole branding and marketing campaign around Gay Pride Month featuring its marshmallow rainbow.

It recently continued that push with a cake-tasting event sponsored by its iconic and arguably most conservative brand, Betty Crocker, as part of "The Families Project," to support the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota. "At Betty Crocker," a new video proclaims, "we believe that a family is a family, no matter how it's arranged."

General Mills is building up an identity that it's an inclusive brand and it is certainly out front about its leanings, but is there a limit to what consumers will tolerate? Will there be a backlash from being so "loud and proud" about it all?

Already some conservative groups are mounting boycotts of Betty Crocker products in favor of ones produced by rival Kraft Foods (UNKNOWN: KRFT.DL  ) -- which is funny, since the old Kraft company (now Mondelez International) stirred up a hornet's nest when it posted a rainbow Oreo on its Facebook page last year -- similar to the boycotts launched against Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) when it came out in favor of same-sex marriage earlier this year. There's even a DumpGeneralMills website.

Boycotts themselves are notoriously ineffective, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they're on. Last year's attempted boycott of Chick-fil-A for the CEO's comments about same-sex marriage was a bust, and the current boycotts will likely be just as unsuccessful.

Yet by wearing its social agenda on its corporate sleeve, General Mills risks damaging its image among consumers, even among those who aren't opposed to these lifestyle choices. While the country is commendably more tolerant of alternative living arrangements these days, there are still large segments of the population that probably don't enjoy having them flaunted almost to the exclusion of traditional family units.

One danger that General Mills notes is that 71% of Americans say that they have old-fashioned values about marriage and family, though it prefers to focus on those who choose to "be together" rather than on the "old fashioned" part. Yet I think that by virtually identifying itself as the "LGBT brand," it risks becoming exclusionary even as it tries to be inclusionary.

Trailing revenues at the consumer-products company were up 6.7% after the May quarter, which is almost half the rate Kellogg (NYSE: K  ) enjoyed over the same period and is significantly below its own year-ago figures. It's doubtful any of that is a result of the stances General Mill has taken, but investors may start to question whether risking the persistent push for a social agenda that could alienate a large segment of its target consumer is good business.

As the debate over social issues shows, retail is undergoing a sea change and only those companies that are the most forward-looking and capable will survive. Investors who understand the new landscape will be handsomely rewarded for their foresight. You can read about the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail in The Motley Fool's special report. Uncovering these top picks is free today; just click here to read more.

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