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Brand Purpose Food & Drink Brand Strategy

Biting into Girl Scout Cookies’ enduring cultural relevance


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

February 23, 2024 | 13 min read

As part of The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus, we examine the staying power of the US’s favorite iconic treat.

Girl holding Girl Scout Cookie boxes

Marketers credit Girl Scout Cookies' lasting success to the power of nostalgia / Adobe Stock

Each year, nearly 200m boxes of cookies are sold by the Girl Scouts, the youth development organization founded in 1912 in Savannah, Georgia, that has since become globally recognizable.

The cookies – which began as a homegrown fundraising effort from a troop of girls in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1917 – now come in 12 flavors produced by commercial manufacturers. Many have cult followings and inspire heated debates over which cookie flavor reigns supreme and even how best to enjoy the sweet snacks.

Part of the appeal of the cookies, sales of which generate funds for the 1.7 million Girl Scouts across the US and the world – is their rarity. Cookies are available for purchase only during a brief window in the late winter and early spring of each year; the 2024 Girl Scout Cookie season runs from January 9 through March 31.

“Like Shamrock Shakes or Cadbury Creme Eggs, part of the magic of Girl Scout Cookies is that they aren’t available all year round,” says Tom Murphy, the North American chief creative officer of VML. “In this era of instant accessibility to everything, it’s a lesson in the power of scarcity.”

But scarcity and quality – a combination mastered by not only food and beverage companies but also the luxury sector – doesn’t offer a full explanation of the staying power of Girl Scout Cookies in the American zeitgeist. There’s more at play.

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In the telling of the organization’s chief revenue officer Wendy Lou, it’s the fact that buying Girl Scout Cookies taps into consumers’ desire to support the young scouts and their personal growth.

“What has been part of the legacy of Cookies throughout these 100 years or so is that [the program is] really more than just about cookies,” Lou says.

“It has to do with the personal connection that our girls make – both with their friends and family and also with general consumers, say, if they’re outside their local grocery store setting up a booth. The [program’s] learnings [for scouts] are real and customers who are interacting with our Girl Scouts can see that firsthand. If they walk up to a girl, our Girl Scouts are taught … two or three different ways to [make a sale]. If someone comes up to them and says, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to buy cookies,’ then they’ll say, ‘Well, maybe you could buy some to donate.’ Or, if someone says, ‘I don’t like chocolate,’ it’s, ‘Oh, well, we have these options.’ It’s those personal interactions that keep the program as important as it has been [historically]. That’s what makes it special – the sales team we have is pretty influential.”

To support the grassroots sales efforts of scouts across the country, the organization has, in recent years, expanded its internal and external marketing efforts.

Internally, Lou explains, the organization wants to inform troop members and families about the logistics and goals of the program. Scouts are equipped with educational information and sales materials to empower them to sell more cookies.

But the organization has, in recent years, expended more resources on drumming up excitement and inspiring girls to make the most of the season, too. It’s not all about sales tactics. Nowadays, Lou explains, the organization uses ”an internal mascot each year – typically it’s an animal or some kind of character – and it [represents] a theme that the girls will rally around.”

External, consumer-facing marketing efforts have also expanded in recent years. Box designs have been updated to showcase scouts in action and the brand has become more colorful and contemporary. New flavors are introduced periodically to generate buzz, and the organization has added a digital hub to its website to help everyday consumers find a local cookie booth or a troop in their community from which they can buy cookies.

In another key development, the organization last February appointed Venables Bell & Partners as its agency of record. The San Francisco-based indie agency counts Reebok, Chipotle, Intel and Audi among current and past clientele.

With the agency’s help, Girl Scouts this year has launched a multichannel campaign called ‘Unbox the Future,’ which centers on the idea that by buying Girl Scout Cookies, consumers can help support girls in achieving their ambitions.

“In the past,” Lou says, “we’ve focused quite a bit on the actual cookies themselves and how delicious they are, which, of course, is important. But what’s exciting about this campaign … is [the idea] that when you’re buying cookies, it is about fueling the girls’ adventures and keeping them ‘out of the box.’ And it’s the cookies that help do that.”

“Girl Scouts of the USA is an incredible organization with a long history of teaching girls the skills of today to help them become the leaders of tomorrow,“ says Kate Jeffers, partner and president at Venables Bell & Partners. “We are excited to be a strategic partner in their brand-building efforts and to help lift up their mission of building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place.“

In the coming years, Girl Scouts plans to develop additional touchpoints with general consumers. “We’re thinking about how we can continue to create that link between someone who might not even know a Girl Scout personally but wants to support the mission – we can make that happen more easily, so there’s still a lot more to unlock,” says Lou. “We want to continue to try to make it easier for anybody who wants to participate and support us to find the opportunity.”

And while Girl Scouts is investing more aggressively in big-budget marketing efforts, Lou acknowledges that the organization’s best marketing still comes from the boots on the ground.

“At the end of the day, it’s very much a grassroots effort from the girls themselves,” she says. “They’re out there using their digital channels and putting fliers on the neighbor’s door. They’re in person [manning] their booths and they’re doing whatever they can in their local community. And the local councils [that provide support and programming for troops] are also activating. It’s a locally-focused effort with national coordination so that everyone’s speaking with the same voice.”

Sofia Gonzalez, creative director at FCB Chicago and mom to two Girl Scouts, says that the girls find joy in marketing the cookies in their own clever and creative ways. “It’s all about having fun – setting up goals to get the rewards they want, creating funny videos to share on social media and attract more customers and coming up with ways to make their cookie booths more attractive,” she says. “And while each girl gets rewarded individually for their personal sales, the entire troop benefits from the proceeds of their collective sales.”

And in the eyes of some marketing experts, it’s this homegrown effort – which has remained central to the Girl Scout Cookie program for more than a century – that imbues the cookie tradition with so much charm and keeps US consumers coming back for more.

“It’s been over 100 years of word-of-mouth sales, neighbor kids knocking on the door or coworkers announcing that ‘it’s cookie time’ again,” says Caitlin Fitzgibbons, creative director at Fallon, a Publicis agency. “These days, you might find out Tagalongs are back on TikTok, but nostalgia is at the core of this tradition – it’s the simple joy of helping your community and a brand that is entrepreneurial and fun.”

The idea is echoed by FCB’s Gonzalez. “For consumers, it’s all about nostalgia. Whether it’s, ‘I remember selling these,’ or ‘I remember my daughter, granddaughter or niece selling cookies,’ or simply those who remember enjoying the cookies as kids, everyone seems to have a positive memory tied to the Girl Scouts and their famous cookies.”

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The ubiquity and brand favorability of the cookie tradition have helped carry the brand everywhere, from local schools to the biggest platforms in the world – TikTok, Instagram and even the Oscars stage.

“The Girl Scouts might not seem like your stereotypical marketing experts, but they’ve been at the forefront of innovation for a long time,” says Vidhi Shah, group creative director at Havas New York. “It’s a little like the ‘Simpsons already did it’ meme: Girl Scout Cookie season existed way before Starbucks created the pumpkin spice latte season. Guerilla event takeovers? Chris Rock was selling his daughters’ cookies at the Oscars way back in 2016 [an effort that reportedly generated $65,000 in sales]. Influencer strategy? Check, with all the celebrities talking about their favorite cookies on Instagram.”

“It’s marketing genius wrapped in good old-fashioned nostalgia,” Shah says.

Girl Scouts plans to build on its long-standing success and fan devotion to help take the cookie program to new heights – and to keep reminding consumers that it’s about more than just sweet snacks.

“We’re really proud of the legacy of Girl Scout Cookie, and we want to continue to be as iconic in people’s minds – so when you see a girl out at a cookie booth or wherever, you know that you’re part of the history, but you’re also part of their future,” says Lou. “You’re able to support them in what they want to do in the troop, but also in whatever comes next.”

From fast food to sloe gin, the food & drink space is massively appetizing to marketers. Join us as we dig into some of the sector’s biggest trends during The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus.

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