I think the "Box Tops for Education" campaign launched by General Mills in 1996 was a brilliant bit of marketing genius. The on-going Box Tops program helps to create positive brand image for participating brand name products, but also motivates buyers to chose Box Tops products over comparable non-participating brands.
What could be better than having a charity program that is tied directly to the product packaging and supporting a cause dear to the hearts of target consumers? The Box Tops products are ones that families buy, and improving schools and education is a cause that has wide appeal.
I think the Box Tops program also functions as a tool for product differentiation. Everyone has walked down the cereal isle at the grocery store. More than many other isles in the super market, it's marketing that makes one product in the cereal isle seem vastly different than the other. It's amazing we're not all overwhelmed by the bright colored boxes and seemingly endless number of choices we have. In the end, most cereals serve the same function. The taste and sugar content may vary, but they're all essentially dry chunks of processed grains. Clearly, I don't have detailed marketing research on the subject at my disposal, but I think the Box Tops may persuade a indecisive shopper to choose a General Mills box over a similar cereal. That little $.10 tag psychologically makes a difference. You think you're getting more for your money than just sugary grain puffs.
The company is required to redeem the usually 10 cent value of the labels submitted to participating schools, and while the cost of millions of Box Tops adds up, the face value of them is negligible compared to the cost of the products. The Box Tops website notes that more than $250 million-worth have been redeemed to date, but I can't even imagine the gross profit margin of the products that those tops came from. That doesn't include the value of those that went into the trash with the rest of the cardboard package. I've even collected them myself, and thrown them away simply because I didn't have a convenient place to donate them.
The Box Tops program has been expanded to include many other products and brand names outside the cereal isle, but the tops seem to serve the same function. They make that Box Tops brand a little more appealing than the one next to it on the shelf, and more likely to end up in the a basket waiting in the checkout line.