Advertising: Girl Scout Cookie Sales Go Digital, With Help From Visa and Dell

The New York Times

Advertising

By ELIZABETH OLSON

Now that the Girl Scouts have taken their cookies digital, companies are following them online.

Last January, the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. allowed Internet sales of their famed cookies for the first time, after years of barring the practice because of fears over online safety. Out of the 194 million boxes sold in 2015, about 2.5 million, or $10 million worth of Thin Mints and other varieties, were sold online, the organization said.

This year, Visa and Dell are investing an estimated $3 million to help update the Girl Scouts’ digital cookie platform. The funding has gone toward adding games, videos, quizzes and music to the digital platform, as well as to providing workshops about math and technology, part of the companies’ interest in promoting an increased number of women in the technology industry.

“It’s the perfect marriage between technology and a premier leadership program that teaches digital, social and money skills to girls,” Ellen Richey, Visa’s vice chairwoman of risk and public policy, said of the company’s providing technology and training for the cookie program. The added features are meant to encourage more girls to take part in the annual cookie drive, which raises money for scout activities and helps them learn skills like marketing, setting goals and budgeting. Scouts can take in-person orders using a mobile app, or invite customers to visit a personalized website.

This is Visa’s initial collaboration with the Girl Scouts, and its Visa Checkout payments system can be used for processing online cookie sales. Visa declined to put a specific dollar amount on its involvement, which includes employee volunteer time.

Dell, which began its relationship with the Girl Scouts in 2012, helped create an app for the digital cookie website, and committed more than $2.5 million, including donating hundreds of computer tablets to underprivileged scouts so they can take part in the cookie program. By 2018, Dell hopes to supply nearly 4,000 girls from underprivileged communities with laptops and tablets, according to Trisa Thompson, the company’s vice president for corporate responsibility.

“Girl Scouts is creating the next set of entrepreneurs. We want to help equip the work force of tomorrow,” she said. “If you catch girls young enough, you can spark the fire.”

One of those girls is Olivia V. Cranshaw, 13, of Manhattan, a top seller in the New York area. She has been selling Girl Scout cookies since she was in the first grade and adapted quickly to the digital format.

She recently made her own video, showing her rock climbing on a Girl Scout expedition last fall and talking about her goal — selling 1,500 boxes of cookies this season — as well as her plan to direct the money she earns to cancer research. Girl Scout troops get to keep around 10 to 20 percent of cookie proceeds to spend on projects, donations or trips. A box of cookies costs around $4, depending on the locale.

The video, she said, allowed her “to tell people a little bit about myself. That I play soccer and have a black belt in martial arts.” The expanded cookie platform, she said, “has been a very helpful tool for reaching out to my grandmother in Virginia, my grandmother in Florida and friends in different places.”

Last year, she sold 1,647 boxes of cookies, up from the approximately 200 boxes she sold her first year, when she set up shop outside her primary school.

Despite its corporate funders, the Girl Scouts is facing some internal turmoil about whether financial literacy and entrepreneurship should be so dominant in the century-old organization.

Membership is now at 1.88 million girls, slipping some 6.2 percent from last year, and down from 2.1 million three years ago.

Some girls have publicly expressed unhappiness about the emphasis on cookie sales. In November, five girls in Santa Rosa, Calif., tried to join the Boy Scouts, saying they wanted to take part in physical activities such as camping and climbing rather than Girl Scout activities like selling cookies.

Anna Maria Chávez, chief executive of the Girl Scouts, said that technology is essential to the organization’s future.

“We are doubling down on technology,” she said. “More digital features will encourage more girls to participate in online cookie sales, and we are introducing online tools to make it easier and faster to recruit scouts and adults, including simplifying the process to become a girl scout.”

Last year, 160,000 scouts started using the digital cookie program. Still, about a million fewer boxes over all were sold in 2015 than 2014. But Ms. Chávez said she hoped sales, which were just under $800 million in last year’s cookie season, would rise when more scouts were able to set up their own cookie websites.

To encourage participation, the organization solicited feedback from girls who sold cookies last year and created new features like the “Cookie Booth Bounce” game, which is meant to teach scouts budgeting and decision-making skills, to address their input, Ms. Chávez said.

Both Dell and Visa are advertising their contributions by placing their names — in the familiar green of the Girl Scouts — on the digital cookie website, as well as on the home page for the mobile app.

The companies are also contributing volunteer employee hours for events like a workshop last July where eight female Visa staff members trained a group of girl scouts in cookie program website design, how to conduct a successful customer sales pitch and target marketing. At another Visa workshop in September, girl scouts tested various payment innovations, including Visa’s Checkout and other choices like Samsung Pay.

At Dell, Ms. Thompson, who noted the company had a number of former girl scouts in its ranks, is not deterred by concerns about the cookie program.

“Dell wants to scale up its commitment to find more opportunities for mentoring and volunteering with the girls, including remotely, as well as distance-learning opportunities,” she said. “We’re in the infancy of our efforts.”

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