By nickjohnson - November 20th, 2013

General Mills is one of the world's largest food companies,  with some of the most recognisable brand names in America under their umbrella - from Cheetos to Haagen-Dazs, Pullsbury to Betty Crocker.

Ami Anderson works as Director of Marketing Excellence at the company, and recently spoke at the Incite Summit:East on improving customer understanding to deliver more relevant marketing.

We spent some time talking to Ami about her role, about the importance of moving from "promise" to "purpose" in messaging, and the dramatic changes General Mills has made to their internal marketing organisation over the last few years.

Please tell us some more about your role at General Mills

I’m the Director of Marketing Excellence, so I teach marketing to marketers. GM is a unique company where we hire marketing people only from business schools and we don’t steal talent from other companies. Therefore, many people have been here for ten or more years, and the marketing role has changed dramatically over that time. My challenge is how to ensure that what we're teaching, and how we're building campaigns, is constantly evolving.

That remit means you've a fantastic perspective on how marketing as a whole has evolved over that period. In terms of what you’re teaching, and what you’re passing on to the marketing teams around GM, what has changed?

One of the things that’s changed in past couple of years is how we build our brand architectures.  At the top of the house used to be our brand’s 'Promise' – which was more like a higher order benefit.  Now the top of the house is the brand’s 'Purpose'; what is the brand’s purpose?  What problem are you solving for our consumers?  It is focused on the consumer vs. the brand.

You’ve probably seen a shift in the way our marketing has come to life because we’re a lot more purpose-focused, as opposed to just delivering great products.

Why have you made the change to focus on the consumer, versus the brand?

I think that consumers are now bombarded with messages. If you just interrupt them, they won’t be interested. But if you’re solving a problem for them, they become interested.

For example, about 60% of people don’t know what’s for dinner at 4pm. We can  give them a quick solution: “With Grands!® refrigerated biscuits and hamburger meat you can put together an Unsloppy Joe in about 30 minutes.” This is useful information and people like it.  They are getting a solution to a problem they have.

There must be a huge amount of social interaction across all the General Mills brands. How do you synthesise all that information, and convert all that feedback into useful insight?

ami Ami Anderson, Director of Marketing Excellence, General Mills

As I mentioned before, we have a ‘purpose’. What is your purpose, what do you hope to accomplish?

Underneath those purposes we have pursuits - areas we’re going to focus on.

And that model informs how we work with customer feedback and evolve our strategies. What the team does is focus on those pursuits, and how we bring them to life - what the brand stands for.

For example, look at Betty Crocker.  It’s the first social media brand - because over 70 years ago, people were writing in to Betty Crocker and asking for help with their culinary needs, and she was writing them back. It’s a different medium, it was with a stamp, but it was the same idea.

Today, we have Betty Crocker as one of our most populated sites. We’re constantly sending out ideas, especially in holiday season, answering queries on how to make a turkey etc. She’s there to solve problems and offer solutions.

Take the birthday cakes for instance - it’s usually the centerpiece of a birthday party. You get your friends together, get the cake, blow out candles, eat the cake, and the party’s over. It’s an important part of the celebration.

How do we help people with the party planning?  Would people really consult Betty Crocker for party solutions? We didn’t know, so we tested the idea. We put together checklists for the first birthdays - what to do, what to buy, themes to think about, etc. And sure enough, the feedback we got was really positive. So now the team is expanding that idea with more themes, adding on different ages, etc.

But it all comes back to the brand’s purpose and its pursuits.  We are helping to solve a problem. If you are a mother that needs to put together a birthday party, it can be very stressful. We’re giving her a solution, things that make the whole process easier. And again, our cake is part of the solution - but it’s so much more about content than it is about just a great tasting cake.

To be able to do this analysis, to produce relevant content, to be in a position to have actual conversations with your customers - all at speed - did that necessitate a change to your organisational structure?

Has it meant new roles being developed? Do you need to teach more people, from a broader swathe of the company, marketing excellence?

All of the above. I’d say that we’ve dramatically changed the organization of our brand builders and marketers over the past two years.

From a staffing perspective, we’ve added more digital managers onto the teams, to help us in real time. In the beginning, as digital was evolving, it was something the agency helped with. But now we feel that we need to have that expertise right here, right now - and acting in real time. Having them sitting with the group.

So that’s something dramatic.

I’d also say that how we work has changed dramatically because we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to be more responsive, and also prioritize better. There are so many different touchpoints now, and so many different messaging options. How do we prioritize? What area we’re going to focus in on? And most importantly, what is most meaningful to our brand champions?

I’d say that we’ve dramatically changed the organization of our brand builders and marketers over the past two years

You spoke at the Summit about the increasing ability to deliver personalized, relevant customer experiences. Can you take us through some examples of how you’re doing that at General Mills?

Look at some of our websites: we know if people are visiting primarily because they're interested in a coupon. If we know that they like coupons, we’ll probably give those coupons prominent placement in the layout - and then focus more on savings in any subsequent newsletter contact with them. That'll be a different experience to that of someone who we know is really interested in chicken recipes -  for whom we may well serve up more of those recipes.

It’s about finding out what people are interested in, and then ensuring we have the most relevant, interesting content available for them. We want to make sure that we give them what they want and need.

So you're building up an increasingly detailed profile of your customers. Are you currently sharing that information between your brands, or is it siloed?

We try to keep the information separate.  If they were interested in Yoplait they are not necessarily interested in Pillsbury recipes.    It’s not what they came for, so we don’t deliver that. We want to stay true to what they’re interested in, and therefore talk to them about that.

Tell us about the biggest marketing trends and changes you can see on the horizon. What will you be teaching General Mills marketing teams in a year that you’re not doing right now?

I would say we’re on the right track for most of the big changes - but how things are going to evolve is going to be dramatically different.

For example, the world of digital media has drastically changed how we go to market, how we talk to consumers, and how we build our campaigns.

I think it’s going to be even more of a dramatic change moving forward. We were built on the mass communication model, and we’re now moving to the tailored, 1-to1 model. I think it’s an exciting time to be in marketing because you’d rather have someone sharing something you’re interested in, rather than tell you everything they know.

We think that’s going to evolve, and the question now is how we incorporate that observation into how we run campaigns. Are we going to come out with 100 different campaigns? I don’t know - that could be where we end up with tailoring messages.

For example, with Green Giant we found out from experience that people were eating vegetables to manage their weight.  But weight management for boomers is very different than weight management for Millennials, so our messaging had to be very different.

Through digital media and TV, we’ve been able to bring the same idea to life in dramatically different executions, based on who we’re talking to.

I think there’s going to be more marketing like that; finding an idea based on a consumer insight but bringing it to life in many different ways depending on who you’re talking to.

One final question. What is the core message you try to get across to those marketers you’re training in that first, introductory training session for new hires?

The core message is “know your consumer”. It’s increasingly less about creating products and finding a market.

Now, it’s about uncovering a consumer need, and then working from there. That’s where we see the most successes. We are always reminding our Marketers that it is essential  to know your consumer. You win a lot more in the marketplace when you’re solving a need, as opposed to throwing something out and hoping someone likes it.

If you'd like to hear more from Ami, we have some exclusive content over on our Facebook page. There, you can see Ami's answer to the question "How have you changed engagement tactics to show customers that you can solve their problems?". 

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