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General Mills named Marketer of the Year

In 2014, the company listened more and took bigger chances than ever before

Yesterday, General Mills was recognized as Marketer of the Year by Canadian Grocer's sister magazine, Marketing. In giving the award, the magazine noted that General Mills went out of its comfort zone last year, trying on a new persona as a “purpose-driven” manufacturer and testing out new demographics for some of its classic products. Here's how General Mills caught the attention of consumers and drove sales.

Multi-Grain Cheerios was in the middle of a slump. For years, the brand had been touted as part of a healthy lifestyle, but by the summer of 2013, that line of messaging wasn’t moving the needle like it had in the past. Dale Storey, the senior marketer at General Mills, thought it was time for a shakeup, so that fall he brought a pitch to his boss, David Homer, then president of General Mills Canada.

What the brand needed, Storey told Homer, was tension. A foil to healthy living. “An enemy” as Storey put it. His suggestion: dieting.

Women’s feelings about dieting run deep, as his team’s research showed. When they met one-on-one to talk to female consumers about it, 15 of their 20 interview subjects broke down in tears.

Homer, now CEO of General Mills and Nestlé spinoff, Cereal Partners Worldwide, showed interest, but was unsure about tackling a social issue like dieting. He suggested the brand return to its well-honed game plan from a few years prior, but Storey persisted, and the two agreed to shoot a video with the company’s agency of record, Cossette. They enlisted Olympian Silken Laumann, who read out a pledge to her daughter to never use the word “diet” again.

Storey, who has been with the company for 21 years, thought the video was powerful, but Homer wasn’t quite ready to buy in. After their discussion, he took home a rough cut of the video to watch it with his wife. She loved it. She understood dieting fatigue, and when he saw her reaction, he was sold. Soon after, the brand uploaded the video to YouTube and sent a 30-second cut to broadcast stations.

As it turns out, Homer’s wife wasn’t the only woman who could relate. By the end of the campaign, 2,400 women had signed the pledge and the video had drawn 145,000 views. More importantly, the ad helped push up non-promoted sales 21% in the first six months of 2014. The campaign results were enough to justify a series of social-cause ads on topics ranging from diversity to getting kids to explore nature to celebrating the LGBT community.

In 2014, General Mills showed, as Storey puts it, not only “who” its brands are, but also what they care about. It was a year in which the company truly listened to customers. Better yet, it knew what to do with what it heard. It listened more, learned better and took bigger chances.

The company took a deep dive into data, refining its approach, favouring social listening and weekly Skype interviews with consumers over large-scale studies. Storey and his team paired data insights with conversations they had with real consumers, painting a clear picture of their customers that led to ads that were hyper targeted, but also full of human emotion.

Data also led them to new segments, such as the grocery-shopping dads heralded in Peanut Butter Cheerios’ anthemic “How To Dad” spot and millennials who love kiddie-branded cereals; a group fuelling Lucky Charms’ resurgence (it has grown 20% a year for the past two years).

To top it all off, 90% of General Mills’ marketing in 2014 was created in Canada—the most homegrown advertising the company has produced in more than two decades, which turned the company’s Canadian arm into a net exporter of both marketing and products. (Its Old El Paso Restaurante line is launching internationally this year after debuting here in July.)

General Mills wasn’t always as bold, as local or as good of a listener as it proved to be in 2014. In 2012, Storey set an audacious goal: to become the best marketer in the country. It was an ambition backed by a touch of jealousy sparked when The Advantage Group International named the company’s sales team the best in the country. Storey challenged his own team to equal their colleagues’ achievement.

He decided the company had to be more nimble, more inspired and, most importantly, bolder in its marketing. That led General Mills to Joey Reiman, an author, speaker and marketer who Storey calls the “godfather of brand purpose.”

The company brought him out to its summer offsite retreat, where he talked about how consumers value brands that tackle social problems and how General Mills might approach the practice. Importantly, he shared a stat Storey repeats from memory: brands connecting with consumers on social issues are growing 10 to 15 times faster than those that are not.

Reiman’s presence at the offsite was more than a quickie presentation. It spilled over into long conversations, team dinners and e-mail swaps, ultimately helping the company usher in a wave of ads driven by social causes that started with Multi-Grain Cheerios.

One of the most successful was Nature Valley’s push to get children outside and exploring nature. The campaign, headed by snacks marketing director, Emma Eriksson, included a 30-second ad encouraging consumers to reconnect with nature and an online video of the brand taking a Boys and Girls Club on a field trip to a conservation area. The latter became a runaway hit, garnering 2.1 million views. It also drove sales in the grocery aisle. Non-promoted sales for the brand were up 22% in the six months following the campaign’s launch in June.

And last summer, as World Pride rolled into Toronto, Lucky Charms launched an LGBT-targeted campaign spearheaded by cereal marketing director, Jason Doolan. It included “Lucky To Be,” an ad that celebrated individuality, diversity and inclusiveness, as well as activations at the Pride festivals in both Toronto and Vancouver that matched each of its marshmallow colours with one of the colours in the rainbow “gay pride” flag.For a cereal brand, the campaign was a big jump. And it required great bravery, says Markus Giesler, associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Cereal ads have long projected images of nuclear, “heteronormative” families and to show anything else—as General Mills again did, in October, when it featured a Québécois gay couple and their daughter in a Cheerios ad—is a bigger risk than it might be for a fashion or tech brand, Giesler says.

Zeroing in on the LGBT market proved profitable. Non-promoted sales of Lucky Charms jumped 33% following its Pride activations. “That audience is so under-served that you end up creating this affinity and relationship that is so much deeper, just because you have the courage to do it,” says Storey.

Giesler’s not surprised the gamble paid off. “When you take a stance, open your mouth and demonstrate loyalty with a particular political cause, people applaud if they think it’s a valuable contribution to the larger political debate,” he says.

Championing social causes was just one way General Mills has redefined what it does as a marketer. It also got deep into the research and development process, where it looked for new or underserved markets, just as it had done with its marketing.

Seeing the explosion of hip Mexican restaurants across Canada, the company wanted to find a way to insert its Old El Paso brand into the trend. So Lori Hillier, marketing director of meals and baking, started arranging monthly “taco tours” to test everything from local hot spots to Chipotle. They realized that with Mexican food going upmarket in restaurants, another brand could soon do the same in the grocery aisle, potentially displacing some of Old El Paso’s 75% market share. They decided to beat the competition to the punch and started developing Old El Paso Restaurante.

Hillier sent a company chef to a school in Oaxaca, Mexico and brought the chefs from Grand Electric, one of Toronto’s hottest restaurants, in to its test kitchen to offer advice. The line was launched in July with an afterparty-style event where influencers made tacos with Restaurante products. Footage from the event (run by Mosaic) was then cut into a reality TV–inspired spot (by Cossette).

Only six months after the launch, Restaurante has earned a 3% share in the Mexican packaged-meals market and is set to launch internationally.

It was one of several new targeted products General Mills introduced in Canada in 2014. The company also launched Edge, a cereal targeting men; and Multi-Grain Cheerios with ancient grains.

Next year, General Mills plans on launching more made-in-Canada products, including a chocolate cereal, based on a yet another insight—30% of the cereal market in France is chocolate products, and consumption of chocolate cereal is much higher in Quebec than in English Canada. Storey said his team is also eager to launch products for ethnic Canadians, especially South Asian communities.

This article first appeared in Marketing Magazine

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