General Mills has been around for over 150 years, but it’s not focused on the past these days. Restaurant closures and shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic have led to a boost in sales and new customers for packaged-food manufacturers. The industry’s present challenge: how to keep them.
In conversation with Adweek’s Chris Ariens at this year’s virtual Brandweek event, General Mills chief brand officer of North America Brad Hiranaga described what steps the company behind Cheerios, Pillsbury and Nature Valley is taking today to better prepare for tomorrow’s consumer. As Hiranaga put it: “Marketers create markets. That’s your job.”
The idea that we’re all in this together has become a lot less theoretical during the pandemic. Hiranaga believes marketers should lean into this moment to make their messages both more authentic and relevant.
“With everybody experiencing Covid simultaneously, I feel like we’re all a lot more conscious about the issues and the challenges that we’re going through,” said Hiranaga, noting loneliness, financial hardship or questions about cooking as examples. “It’s making us better at crafting marketing for people that is going to be useful.”
To Hiranaga, though, being in tune with what’s happening is just the first part of how marketers can help grow their companies.
“Being aware of culture isn’t good enough,” he said. “How are we helping create culture and build on culture and being a participant in it?”
All brands, said Hiranaga, are set up to solve problems. With supply chains under stress and restaurants operating at limited capacities, General Mills’ mission has shifted only slightly: Instead of providing food people want, its goal is to manufacture food people need.
To this end, General Mills has developed a program to produce $5 million worth of cereal, waffles and granola bars to donate to Feeding America’s network of food banks.
Aware that plenty of people are preparing meals at home these days, perhaps for the first time ever, the company’s Betty Crocker brand has also published simple and affordable recipes aimed at beginners.
“The newest brands and businesses and entrepreneurs are problem-obsessed,” Hiranaga said. “As marketers, especially in these big legacy core brands and businesses, how do we become problem-obsessed?”
Hiranaga believes that, ultimately, doing good is good for business.
For example, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where General Mills is based, the company ran a Wheaties spot featuring Serena Williams during the BET Awards in late June. Instead of focusing on the breakfast cereal, the ad spotlighted Williams’ work with the Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting wrongly convicted prisoners.
Good intentions, however, don’t always go as planned.
When General Mills’ fruit snack brand Gushers tweeted a message of solidarity with the Black community without any accompanying action, the post was met with confusion and ridicule from some members of the public.
“We kind of screwed that up a bit,” admitted Hiranaga. “We had a plan, but we weren’t able to tell the plan before we rushed in.”