Cult vegan brand Lärabar is changing the way General Mills works with influencers

Lärabar is popular in the Northern American market with sales of $200m in 2018

General Mills has put a ‘squad’ of hand-picked influencers at the heart of its plans to launch its vegan fruit and nut snack Lärabar in the UK. The investment into the influencer-led campaign is the largest of its kind for the company and will take it into unchartered waters as it tries to draw more value from partnerships with social stars in an industry coming under increasing scrutiny.

The brand will spend £700K on the UK launch campaign, one-third of which will be allocated to influencers.

“Our approach to influencer marketing in General Mills had always been one of working with celebrities or ‘hero’ influencers. We’d work with micro-influencers in a one-off approach where we created content with the intention of getting reach,” explained Arjoon Bose, the FMCG group’s head of marketing for new ventures.

For other General Mills food and snack brands like Nature Valley and Häagen-Dazs influencers have come in the form of high-profile global brand ambassadors like Tennis star Grigor Dimitrov.

Now, the group is looking at the long-term as it launches Lärabar in the UK across Instagram, experiential, in-store and PR.

To support the debut, it carefully selected five influencers with tens of thousands of followers each to help Lärabar attain the same “cult” status here as it has done in the US.

Founded by Lara Merriken in 2000 then snapped up by General Mills eight years later, Lärabar is popular in the Northern American market with sales of $200m in 2018. In the US wellness snack and nutrition category, it’s achieved 25% growth in the last year and since 2015 it’s almost tripled its market penetration – in no small part due to its investment in influencer-led messaging.

Not only will the UK squad be charged with promoting the brand on channels like Instagram, but they’ll also define the “tonality” of its advertising and messaging throughout the year. Bose also says there's an ambition to grow the group.

“We want them to be our voice, our ears, help us with flavours and shape our partnerships,” he notes.

This is something other brands have been doing too: Adidas assembled its ‘Tango Squad’ back in 2016 and L’Oreal (of which Bose is an alum) launched its own influencer cohort the same year. Last year, Boots revealed how a group of women had spent three years building its Your Good Skin brand and that they would continue in the role of ambassadors.

The five influencers have been cherry-picked by General Mills to appeal to young, purpose-driven consumers with an interest in verticals like wellness, yoga and fashion.

The ‘squad’ comprises fitness blogger Adrienne Herbert, travel and lifestyle Instagrammer Natalie Glaze along with Annie Clarke, Jessica Skye and Kim Hartwell.

'Robust' vetting processes

Amid concerns over fraudulent follower counts and a clampdown from regulators around opaque brand-influencer deals, the FMCG group is also taking extra precautions to ensure transparency from all sides.

Instagram will sit at the heart of the influencer push, but over the past 12 months, the platform has been plagued by questions from advertisers around the legitimacy of its audiences. A recent study showed that 12% of influencers had shown signs of buying fake followers on the Facebook-owned site, while separate data claimed that a crackdown from Instagram had little impact on follower fraud.

Pointing to Unilever’s uncompromising approach on vetting influencers’ follower counts, Bose said General Mills had worked with its agency to get “robust” confirmation that follower numbers and engagement rates were authentic.

“The squad was properly vetted,” he says, explaining that the influencers involved were selected in part because they’d already engaged with the brand. “We also met with them in person before we signed them up, which was a key reassurance for us.”

He adds: “There was a lot of in-depth research done by the team to ensure that getting the demographic was right, but vetting was equally important for us.”

With an influencer backlash on the march following the debut of Netflix and Hulu’s Fyre Festival documentaries, Bose says he isn’t nervous about the amount of Instagrammer activity planned for Lärabar’s UK launch.

“All of us are aware of the Fyre Festival documentaries and how the Advertising Standards Authority) are being a lot more stringent around influencers and pushing for more transparency…. but industry leaders like Unilever pushing for greater anti-fraud and accountability in the space gives us hope that the influencer industry in 2019 will need to be a lot more answerable.

“We’re seeing that change already in the way we work with our influencers and agency partners, and [we’re] being a lot more demanding.”

Bose is right, the ASA and the UK government are taking a stricter line on how influencers signpost brand deals across the internet. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in particular is demanding that influencer must clearly label content that has been paid for with #ad and #sponsored hashtags displayed at the forefront of posts instead of being buried. It’s also asked that even gifted products or services should also be flagged using the hashtag #freebie.

For the Lärabar squad, #ad will be the “absolute norm” assures Bose.

“The key is to ensure that content is created and captured in a way that is authentic to influencers’ personalities and profiles. We wouldn’t work with an influencer who wouldn’t abide by those rules,” he insists.

Lärabar is being sold in Sainsbury's and Amazon in the UK, with the success for the initial activation being measured against brand awareness, engagement and sales.

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