Player Profile: One size doesn't fit all for Big G's new product guru

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An early lesson in the inevitable pitfalls of product launches prepared Jonathan Yusen for his new position as marketing manager for new products at General Mills' leading cereal division Big G.

Mr. Yusen, 30, began his tenure at General Mills as an intern while getting his MBA at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, returning to the package-goods behemoth full time in August 1996 as an assistant marketing manager in the Betty Crocker Desserts business unit. After hopping around from muffins to frosting to cake, he was given the opportunity to lead the marketing team behind the launch of Betty Crocker Stir 'n Bake, a line of all-in-one, just-add-water baking mixes.

The success of the launch, a precursor to his "new products" role, centered on two crucial things, Mr. Yusen said. One was the ability of Stir 'n Bake to fit in with a pervasive consumer trend, in this case convenience. The other was having a great cross-functional team.

That team was put to the test at the 11th hour when the discovery was made that the pan for the new line of mixes, and subsequently the Stir 'n Bake box, was too tall to fit on the baking-mix shelf at retail.

"At first glance, we said `no problem, just change the size of the pan,' but from a marketing standpoint, we had to make sure it looked like enough for consumers; R&D had to alter baking instructions, and procurement had to make sure they could get it in time for a launch in the fall, the biggest baking season," Mr. Yusen said. The team proved up to the task, pulling off the launch on a very tight timeline by working together and "putting on each other's hats," he said.

The up-and-comer's new product acumen was also honed through the six months he spent in sales training-"to make sure I didn't make the `doesn't-fit-on-the-shelf problem' again," he joked. During his time "outside the ivory tower," Mr. Yusen called on retail-account headquarters and specific stores to manage General Mills' products on the shelves. And he found that in rolling out a new product, "when push comes to shove, it's about the idea, and conveying the excitement and passion you have for that idea to the retailers," he said.

It is just those great ideas that have led General Mills to the top position in the $7.5 billion cereal category, according to J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Erika Long. "General Mills' success rate with new products has enabled them to have a higher level of volume growth than a lot of their competitors and is the single-most important factor contributing to our buy rating for the company over the last year and a half," she said.

Innovation at Big G, which before the acquisition of Pillsbury made up just over 40% of Mills' sales, has been particularly crucial to the company, and will continue to be even though the division post-acquisition will account for only 22% of overall company sales, Ms. Long said.

As newly appointed marketing manager for Big G new products, Mr. Yusen will be charged with continuing that growth rate by developing products to join and extend Mills' existing roster of powerhouse cereals, among them Cheerios, Wheaties and Chex.

But Mr. Yusen said he's up to the challenge of innovating in the very mature cereal category, and is convinced he and his team will come up with "compelling new ways to get people to eat General Mills' breakfast products."

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