General Mills

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In 1928, Washburn Crosby Co.—whose brands included Wheaties, Softasilk and Gold Medal—led a merger of 27 regional mills around the country to form General Mills. The new company immediately became the largest milling operation in the world and, despite the fact that its first years coincided with the depths of the Great Depression, it continued to expand through product introductions and memorable advertising campaigns. In fact, General Mills was one of the few companies to significantly expand its advertising expenditures during the early 1930s.

Among the products General Mills introduced in the next decades were Bisquick baking mix, launched in 1931; Corn Kix, the company's first puffed ready-to-eat cereal, 1937; Cheerioats, the first puffed oat cereal, 1941 (renamed Cheerios in 1945); and the first Betty Crocker-branded cake mix, GingerCake, 1947, which was followed by PartyCake and Devil's Food cake mixes in 1949.

During World War II, General Mills capitalized on its expertise in designing machinery for food processing; it translated that skill to the war effort, manufacturing torpedo indicators for the Navy and, in the 1950s, developing the black boxes used in airplanes. (The first Betty Crocker appliance, an iron, was introduced in 1946.)

Expanding its product line

After the war, the company returned to its consumer product line. During the 1950s and 1960s—a period of growth in the cereal industry, with the number of brands doubling to about 100—General Mills introduced several new cereals, including its first presweetened variety, Jets (1953), the multicolored Trix (1954), Cocoa Puffs (1958) and Total (1961). In 1959, General Mills launched instant mashed potatoes, later were marketed under the name Potato Buds. The 1950s also marked a period of international expansion.

The 1960s represented a period of diversification for General Mills, which moved into industries having nothing to do with food. It purchased several toy companies—including Kenner in 1967, Parker Brothers in 1968 and Rainbow Crafts, maker of Play-Doh, in 1965—to become the world's largest toymaker. It also bought apparel and accessory marketers, including Monet Jewelry, Eddie Bauer Inc., Izod Lacoste, Ship 'n Shore, Talbots and Foot-Joy Shoes. At the same time, the company closed half its flour mills and sold off unprofitable lines. By 1978, toys accounted for $483.3 million in sales, or one-third of total revenue.

Also in the 1960s, the company moved into snack foods, including Bugles, introduced in 1966. The launch of Hamburger Helper in 1970 represented the beginning of a new packaged foods category, consisting of prepared food mixes to which the customer added meat. General Mills took over the marketing of Yoplait yogurt from French dairy cooperative Sodima in 1977 and introduced it to the U.S.; it added the Colombo brand to its yogurt business in 1993 after it purchased the brand from Bongrain S.A. The company's microwave popcorn brand, Pop Secret, was launched in 1985.

From 1950 to 1985, General Mills had acquired 86 companies in nonfood industries. But of those purchased before 1975, almost three-quarters had been spun off within five years. During the 1980s, General Mills sold most of its nonfood businesses, cumulatively representing 25% of sales. In 1995, the company spun off its Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurant chains, developed in 1982 and purchased in 1970, respectively, into Darden Corp., ending the company's divestiture activity and allowing it to focus on its core business of consumer foods.

Meanwhile, General Mills boosted its international operations, forming Cereal Partners Worldwide as a European joint venture with Nestle in 1989 and establishing Snack Ventures Europe, a joint venture with PepsiCo, in 1993.

Singing the praises of Wheaties

In 1930, General Mills decided to promote the Wheaties brand directly to children, sponsoring a radio program that featured Skippy, an adventurous boy who got into a lot of trouble. This approach differed from previous Wheaties advertising, which targeted adults in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post via slogans such as "Gay as a French confection" and "Eat whole wheat this alluring way."

As part of its sponsorship, General Mills started one of the first children's radio clubs, the Skippy Secret Service Society. Listeners joined by sending in box tops, spurring 20% growth in sales of Wheaties, from 1.25 million cases in 1931 to 1932 to 1.5 million in 1932 to 1933. The brand's tie-in with the show was supported by print ads that targeted mothers with slogans such as "No more arguments at breakfast." Blackett-Sample-Hummert handled advertising for Wheaties.

In 1933, Skippy became "Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy." In one of the first episodes of that radio series, the script mentioned a "shooting plane," a replica of which was offered at the end of the program for a box top and 10¢. So many people sent in orders that it took almost six months for store shelves to be fully stocked with Wheaties again.

General Mills decided to go after the men's market by tying in with local baseball games and soon became involved with 95 teams on 67 radio stations. As part of its deal with the Minneapolis Millers, General Mills painted an ad on the grandstand at the Millers' field that featured the slogan "Breakfast of champions." Knox Reeves Advertising took over "Jack Armstrong" and the Wheaties brand by the late 1930s, handling much of the sports-related advertising that supported the "Breakfast of champions" theme. General Mills went on to hire athletes such as Babe Ruth and Johnny Weissmuller to appear in advertisements. During the 1939 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, 46 of the 51 All-Stars were Wheaties endorsers.

In the late 1940s, the cost of baseball sponsorship became prohibitive, so General Mills focused its efforts for Wheaties on TV spots featuring athlete testimonials. Eventually, General Mills moved away from sports altogether and began to target children. That strategy proved successful with elementary school children, but the repositioning cost Wheaties a large part of its male consumer base. Overall, sales dropped 10% in one year. In 1956, General Mills tried to rectify the situation by returning the brand to its "Breakfast of champions" theme.

In the 1970s, Wheaties aired a campaign consisting of a humorous take-off on its famous slogan, showing athletes such as Johnny Bench stumbling around on the playing field until a voice-over noted, "Hey, John, you didn't have your Wheaties. . . ." In 1980, the brand switched agencies to DDB Needham, which in 1984 introduced gymnast Mary Lou Retton as spokeswoman in spots that featured the slogan, "Now go tell your mama what the big boys eat!" In the late 1980s, the brand started a long-running campaign, "Better eat your Wheaties," starring sports celebrities such as Michael Jordan.

Birth of Betty Crocker

As Wheaties was rising in fame, General Mills also was strengthening its Gold Medal brand through advertising and promotions.

In 1931, the marketer began to include coupons in sacks of its Gold Medal flour redeemable for free Oneida silverware in exclusive Betty Crocker patterns such as Friendship and Medality. While Betty's name was used throughout the 1930s and 1940s to market products under the Gold Medal brand—indeed a predecessor of General Mills had begun to use Betty Crocker to advertise Gold Medal flour as early as 1921—Betty Crocker was not used as a brand name until 1941, when it appeared on soup mix.

The first official portrait of Betty Crocker was painted by New York artist Neysa McMein in 1936 and appeared in print ads for Gold Medal flour soon after that. The character first appeared on packaging in 1937, when her portrait was featured on Softasilk cake flour. Betty Crocker has since gone through eight incarnations.

The company has released many Betty Crocker cookbooks since 1950, often to support specific initiatives. For example, when popular opinion turned against bread because it was perceived as a fattening food, General Mills released a Betty Crocker cookbook stressing the nutritional value of bread and including many recipes.

Blackett and its successor agency, Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, continued to handle the Betty Crocker brand until General Mills moved it to Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn in 1955, then to Needham, Louis & Brorby in 1962, where it remained through the 1970s. Betty moved from radio to TV in the 1950s, making guest appearances where she taught celebrities such as George Burns and Gracie Allen to cook.

One of the many products that came under Betty Crocker's auspices was Bisquick, introduced in 1931. The baking mix initially used the slogan "Makes anybody a perfect biscuit maker." Customers quickly discovered how versatile the product was, however, leading General Mills to reposition the brand to emphasize this characteristic with slogans such as "Bisquick, bride's best bet," "Stop baking risk, use Bisquick" and "A world of baking in a box."

Breakfast brands

Another of General Mills' flagship brands was launched in 1941. Blackett used the slogan "Makes delicious munching" for new Cheerioats. That positioning is thought to be the first time a cereal had been sold as a snack food. In 1943, General Mills supplied Cheerioats to the military in 10-ounce "Yank packs," using the slogan "He's feeling his Cheerioats." A spokescharacter, Cheeri O'Leary, the Cheerioats Girl, offered up celebrity tidbits in support of the brand.

In 1945, General Mills rival Quaker Oats objected to the former's use of the word oats in its name, claiming it held exclusive commercial rights to that term for its own oatmeal. As a result, General Mills changed Cheerioats' name to Cheerios.

Starting in 1947, Cheerios tied in with "The Lone Ranger" radio show, which Kix had been sponsoring since 1941. The popular program created demand for "Lone " premiums and for the Cheerios box tops needed to order them. When "The Lone Ranger" moved to TV, so did General Mills' sponsorship.

General Mills also used many other TV programs to support its cereals throughout the 1950s. It sponsored "Captain Midnight" on behalf of Kix starting in 1954 and created a fictional character, Major Jet, to support Sugar Jets.

In 1958, a virtually unknown animator, Jay Ward, was pitching a show called "Rocky and His Friends" just as General Mills was looking for an entertainment vehicle to raise the profile of Cheerios. General Mills bought all the rights to Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the animated series debuted in 1959 on ABC, later moving to NBC. The program's opening sequence featured puppets of the characters, which worked in plugs for cereals, including Cocoa Puffs, Trix and Wheat Hearts, as well as Cheerios. By 1967, General Mills owned 350 half-hours of "Rocky and His Friends" and a later incarnation, "The Bullwinkle Show," which it syndicated across the country. By that time, the company had become the second-biggest cereal marketer in the U.S., surpassing General Foods' Post brands. Much of its increase in sales and share was credited to "Rocky and His Friends."

General Mills moved all its cereal brands except Wheaties to Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample in 1959, hoping to improve its competitive situation; at the time it was No. 3 in the cereal market, trailing Kellogg Co. and General Foods Corp.'s Post brands. Dancer developed the "Big G" logo, still used on General Mills packaging in the 21st century, to brand the cereals with a cohesive image, promoting the effort with the slogan, "The Big G Stands for Goodness." The agency also created the Cheerios Kid spokescharacter and his friend, Sue, with their slogan "Big G, Little O, Go with Cheerios."

The Trix Rabbit first appeared, in puppet form, on "Rocky and His Friends," "Captain Kangaroo" and other General Mills-sponsored programs.

The puppet's image first appeared on a box of Trix in 1960, the same year the character debuted in animation. His original sales pitch was, "I'm a rabbit and rabbits are supposed to like carrots. But I hate carrots. I like Trix." Soon afterward, Dancer came up with the slogan, "Silly rabbit; Trix are for kids."

In 1963, Sonny the Cuckoo Bird ("Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs") first appeared. He was followed by Lucky the Leprechaun, with his phrase, " 'Tis lucky to catch a leprechaun/But of course, nobody can/Catch me and you catch me Lucky Charms." Meanwhile, Cheerios marked an advertising first during the 1960s when Dancer developed a spot showing a white youngster and a black youngster playing basketball together. The spot is thought to represent the debut of an African-American in a primary role in a commercial.

Not all General Mills' advertising has been widely praised. Ads for Total cereal, for example, have been criticized for their nutritional claims since the product's 1961 introduction. In positioning itself as a low-calorie, high-vitamin and -mineral alternative, Total has long used comparative advertising, matching up the nutritional content of one bowl of Total to multiple bowls of competing brands. In response to a 1975 challenge from Quaker on behalf of its 100% Natural cereal and to ABC-TV's reluctance to air the ad in question, Total remade one commercial to limit its claims.

Entering the yogurt market

In 1977, General Mills entered the yogurt market by purchasing the U.S. rights to Yoplait, launching it with a TV campaign tagged "Yoplait est fantastique!" The marketer returned to TV in 1991 with the slogan, "Yoplait. Do it for you." DDB, Chicago, handled Yoplait.

In the 1990s, "cereal wars" among the major manufacturers were reflected in an abundance of couponing efforts, leading to higher everyday prices. Economically, this was not a sound strategy; for every 50¢ saved by the consumer, the cost to the manufacturer was estimated at 75¢. In 1994, General Mills became the first cereal marketer to cut back couponing efforts, thus saving costs of coupon distribution, handling and redemption. It also cut prices on some of its cereals by 30¢ to 70¢ per box.

As of the early 21st century, General Mills and Kellogg were virtually tied in share of the U.S. cereal market, with both maintaining just more than a 31% share. General Mills' growth in this area is due to its consistent rollout of new (and unique) cereal brands and its higher average price per box. Gold Medal flour was the No. 1 flour brand, while the company's yogurt business (including Yoplait, Go-Gurt and Colombo) was No. 2 after Dannon. With the launch in 1999 of Yoplait Go-Gurt, a squeezable yogurt for kids in a tube, Yoplait became the leading yogurt brand ahead of Dannon. General Mills divisions included Betty Crocker Products, Big G, General Mills Consumer Foods Division and Yoplait USA.

In July 2000, General Mills announced plans to acquire Pillsbury, its longtime competitor in milling and consumer foods, from Diageo. The deal, which was finalized in late 2001 after long scrutiny by the U.S. government over potential monopoly issues, brought consumer brands such as Pillsbury, Old El Paso, Häagen-Dazs, Progresso, Totino's and Green Giant into the General Mills fold and nearly doubled its sales to more than $13 billion.

In November 2002, General Mills shifted $175 million in creative duties on brands including Pillsbury, Green Giant and Progresso to Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, which closed. The company also consolidated its $600 million in media duties to ZenithGPE.

In 2003, General Mills ranked No. 35 among U.S. advertisers, according to Advertising Age, with spending of $955.6 million, roughly even with 2002 spending.

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