General Mills Putting the Consumer at the Heart of Innovation and Renovation


I am a passionate advocate for putting the consumer / customer at the heart of everything you do. And guess what? It appears General Mills, one of the world’s largest food companies agrees with me!

General Mills have decided to get closer to their consumer, listen more attentively, talk more with their consumers, test concepts and really get the consumer involved. This means behaving more like an smaller entrepreneurial business. And General Mills are seeing dividends from this change in behaviour.“Consumer-first renovation, innovation and investment have returned our overall U.S. yogurt business to sales and profit growth” says Kendall J. Powell, chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills.

For big growth, General Mills is thinking small. The maker of Cheerios and Yoplait has overhauled its approach to product development based on what management has learned from observing the industry’s smaller players.

“…over the last half dozen years we have been looking very closely at the entrepreneurs that we compete with, the smaller companies that we compete with, and we have studied in detail how those kinds of small companies develop and bring their products to markets,” said Kendall J. Powell, chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills, during a March 18 earnings call. “And we have learned a lot from doing that.

“And I would say a couple of the key lessons that we have learned is that the entrepreneurs who develop those products are very, very, very close to the ultimate consumer who will buy the product; sometimes the consumer is themselves or family members.”

For General Mills and many other large packaged food companies, size has become more of a barrier than a benefit. To adapt more quickly to changes in the marketplace, the company is placing “marketeers” and consumer research specialists closer to its target customers.

“We think it is really, really important, and in many ways it is replacing big and broad-scale tests that we used to do, which in a way moves our marketeers out of the process and distances the consumer from them,” Mr. Powell said. “So we have got a very high premium on getting our folks right next to the consumers who are going to buy these new products.”

Another part of General Mills’ speed-to-market strategy is quickly creating prototypes of new products for consumers to test early in the development process.

“And when you do them the right way the result is you go fast, you make decisions rapidly, you are very connected to the consumer and so you are more on target more often,” Mr. Powell said.

The company said its consumer-first approach to innovation helped restore its yogurt business.
The company’s consumer-centric approach to innovation and marketing has proven successful for its yogurt business, which posted 10% growth in U.S. retail sales for the most recent quarter on renovation of core products. General Mills recently removed artificial colors and flavors from the brand’s children’s yogurts and is rolling out a 25% sugar reduction across the entire  line.

“We are now the fastest-growing of the major yogurt manufacturers, and we are gaining share at an accelerating pace, including more than 2 points of share growth last month.”

Forthcoming innovation across the company’s portfolio will follow a similar path.

“We are developing plans for fiscal 2016 that are designed to build on this momentum and expand the impact of our consumer-first strategic focus,” Mr. Powell said.

If your business is not yet putting your consumer / customer at the heart of your business, well now is the time to start. You will be surprised at what you learn and how it impacts on your business, sales, marketing and new product development.

There’s no time like the present!

Loretta Dignam

Loretta, owner of Loretta Dignam Consulting is a customer centric marketing consultant with 25+ years of experience with major blue chip multinationals, such as Mars Inc, Diageo Plc and Kerry Group.

Do you put your customer or consumer at the heart of everything you do? 

Here are 8 steps to ensure that you do.

Confused consumer

I never cease to be amazed at the number of businesses that do not put their customer or consumer at the heart of everything they do, whether they are B2B or B2C. And then they wonder why they are not growing at the rate they expect. With so many balls to juggle in a business from ensuring delivery of the product or service, to staffing, maintaining the finances, ensuring IT systems are running, etc., it is easy to forget about the customer or consumer.  And this behaviour is not confined to the ‘for-profit’ sector only. Indeed in the not-for-profit sector the donor or service user needs to be at the heart of everything you do too!

However, it needn’t be that way!

Putting the customer or consumer at the heart of everything you do needs to become a business philosophy, a way of working, a mantra, a value…call it what you will. Some businesses do it really well.

My first job after university was on the graduate programme of Mars Inc. What a fantastic business. Their portfolio of brands includes such global greats as Mars, Snickers, M&Ms, Whiskas, Pedigree, Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s.

Mars operate by The Five Principles.

These 5 Principles are the foundation of their culture and approach to business since the early 1980’s.

The first of these is QualityThe consumer is our boss and quality is our goal’ that’s how it was written back then. Nowadays it has been refined and reads ‘Everybody has a voice…anybody can question the quality of any order. And the standard is very simple: put yourself in the position of the consumer, and if you wouldn’t be happy with what you’re going to give them, don’t give it to them’.

John and Forrest Mars, the owners back then, were obsessive about Quality. They were known to stop the manufacturing line; rejecting product they felt wasn’t up to the standards their consumers deserved. Never mind that stopping the manufacturing line would cost a lot of time and money in terms or finished product and raw materials, such was their passion for the consumer that money they considered it time and money well spent!

The alternative, sending out sub standard product to their consumers was unthinkable. My experience at Mars Inc. has stayed with me forever, a valuable life lesson for which I will be forever grateful.

The customer or consumer is where I start and end. They must be at the heart of everything I do. Simple!

So what can you do to put the customer or consumer at the heart of everything you do?

I recommend 8 key things:

  1. Make it a stated value of your business that you will put your customer at the heart of your business. And share it with all of your employees. Mindset is everything. Start as you mean to go on.
  2. Identify your customer or consumer. Who are they? Where are they? What are they like? Creating Personas will help make your customers or consumers real, will bring them to life and will give everyone a common understanding of who they are.
  3. Segment your customer or consumer base, as you may have a variety of customer types or clusters. This will enable you to identify customer groups that share similarities and you will understand how best to position your offering to the different groups or segments.
  4. Research is essential. Quantitative research which will help you quantify the numbers and types of customers you have and will give you an understanding of the ‘what’. Qualitative research will help you understand the ‘why’, i.e. the motivations behind the behaviour. This need not be overly complicated or expensive, but more about that in another post.
  5. Ensure your brand or product proposition is unique and differentiated from your competitors
  6. Map the customer or consumer journey.  This is a framework that maps out the stages of your customer’s lifecycle. It enables you to improve your customer experience through helping you best understand how customers are interacting with you now and what areas to invest in moving forward.
  7. Create a marketing plan so that you can influence your customer or consumer at key touch points. Rather than a     scattergun approach to your marketing efforts you will now have a targeted approach, a much more effective and         efficient use of your scarce resources.
  8. Measure how you are doing via feedback or research and use that information to improve your customer journey.

    Try these 8 steps and you will experience the difference. Trust me..

Loretta Dignam

Loretta, owner of Loretta Dignam Consulting is a customer centric marketing consultant with 25+ years of experience with major blue chip multinationals, such as Mars Inc, Diageo Plc and Kerry Group.