How COVID-19 is quickening the pace of marketing change at General Mills
General Mills and other packaged food marketers were in an enviable position early on during the coronavirus pandemic. Shoppers were filling their in-person and online carts with loads of products, from cereals including Cheerios and Lucky Charms to Betty Crocker cake mixes and Old El Paso meal kits.
Sales, which typically grow at a low-to-mid single-digit clip at best in the industry, were suddenly in double-digit growth territory. And while factory workers were busy churning out more products to meet rising demand, food marketers themselves were spending more time at home and eating more of their meals there as a result of the pandemic.
“I think we’re all much more empathetic and better as marketers to understand those problems,” Brad Hiranaga, chief brand officer, General Mills North America, says on the latest episode of Ad Age’s “Marketer’s Brief” podcast. “What I think COVID's done is it’s really accelerated areas that we always knew were important but now are at the forefront of everything we do,” he says.
Hiranaga—who joined General Mills in 2004—says the food marketer is also looking more closely at its racial justice efforts, particularly following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where its headquarters sits. CEO Jeff Harmening recently discussed three areas of focus for the company: education, food insecurity, and equality and representation, Hiranaga says. “We’re being a lot more deliberate, a lot more transparent and a lot more external about them,” says Hiranaga.
Hiranaga outlined two brands that have used their marketing to support racial justice efforts.
With Wheaties, “we want champions to put on the box that use this as a platform for something greater,” says Hiranaga. A Wheaties spot that ran during the BET Awards highlighted Serena Williams’ partnership with the Equal Justice Institute and the company donated other media time to the institute, says Hiranaga.
When Fruit Gushers posted a Black Lives Matter statement on social media in June, some people questioned why a snack brand for teenagers and others would weigh in. “This just goes to show I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do any of this work,” says Hiranaga.
That brand and sibling brand Fruit by the Foot then announced they are offering up to $200,000 in donations to the NAACP Youth & College Division when people like their posts featuring young Black artists and creators.
“It isn’t about the brand, the brand is the platform, the brand supports them,” says Hiranaga.
Due to the pandemic, one piece of company-wide marketing that had to change was for the long-running Box Tops for Education program, which last year moved from the familiar trimming of box tops to an app-based receipt scanning process. Marketing that showed kids heading back into classrooms as usual was scrapped for the fall. Now, General Mills wants to help provide access to the Internet or access to laptops so that kids can learn at home. Some of those plans including teaming up with Chance the Rapper on a program to support teachers, and working with the LeBron James Family Foundation’s “I Promise” program.
Hear more from Hiranaga in the podcast.