CMO Of The Week

CMO Of The Week: General Mills’ Ivan Pollard

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As many parts of the world enter their third consecutive month of quarantine this week, the list of bright spots for pandemic-proof categories gets shorter and shorter.

Still at the top of that list, however, are packaged food companies, who are responding to unprecedented demand for their products in new and innovative ways. And Ivan Pollard, Senior VP-Global Chief Marketing Officer at General Mills, is one of the marketers leading that pack.

With nearly 85% of its sales based on at-home foods, General Mills’ business has been less hard hit by the away-from-home cancellations and cutbacks that some of its peers are facing. As a result, the company is projecting double-digit sales gains for its fiscal fourth quarter, aided by growth in its North American retail and pet businesses in particular.

That outperformance extends to Pollard’s advertising budget, which in the U.S. totaled an estimated $535 million in measured-media ad spending in 2018, according to Ad Age’s 2019 Leading National Advertisers Report. Pollard says he has no current plans to trim his overall spend for the remainder of 2020, as many other companies have already slashed their expenditures by upwards of 20% to 40%.

“At the moment, we’re maintaining consumer engagement, but we’re slightly refacing it,” Pollard says. “For example, e-commerce. If that’s going to accelerate for us, we’ll make sure we’re helping fuel that acceleration. So we’re spending the same amount of money, just spending it slightly differently.” 

One part of that ad allocation that Pollard is standing by is its founding sponsorship of Quibi. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile-only streaming service debuted April 6 to a relatively muted response from consumers who suddenly had little use for its planned on-the-go model of bite-sized content, with downloads totaling 2.9 million and active users in the range of 1.3 million, according to a recent report from the New York Times.  

“We’re in,” Pollard says. “We never pulled back. We’ve made content specifically for them, we’re fully supportive and we’re going to continue on that innovation – which is, ‘OK how do we learn how people use and consume that form of content?’”

Central to all of General Mills’ marketing will be its ongoing philanthropic efforts, particularly with longtime partners No Kid Hungry and Feeding America (of which General Mills was a founding supporter.). In April, The General Mills Foundation announced a $5 million commitment to charitable grants supporting food access for key markets and manufacturing communities across the globe, among many other initiatives. 

Pollard caught up with Brand Innovators from the basement of his home in Minneapolis near General Mills’ headquarters to share his play-by-play on General Mills’ pivot strategy post-quarantine, further outline his bullish take on Quibi and drop a few cryptic hints as to whether General Mills may soon be following the likes of PepsiCo into the d-to-c side of e-commerce. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: What have the last two months looked like from a marketing perspective? Where have you had to pivot, and where have you seen some room for innovation?

Ivan Pollard: We were one of the first companies to work from home, in early March, and we have a business in China that had already explored a lot of [pivot plans.] So from a marketing perspective, a really big challenge for a food company right now is, “how do you keep stuff on the shelves?” We have a company mission, and our purpose is to make food the world loves. And we quickly pivoted to making food the world needs. 

So we talked to our marketers around the world very quickly about how to do good in this time. And we said we should stand by our customers who need us, and they’ll stand by us as their crisis ends. And we have some pretty strict rules on how to serve the consumer and meet the needs of the consumer without profiteering. So we didn’t do any of the stuff like make hand sanitizers and masks, because food is what people wanted, and pretty quickly people started returning to brands they trust and food they know is safe.

So what did we do around innovating? It's actually a reversal, because at times of anxiety, giving people what they were looking for was probably was more important than trying to get them to try something new. And it's different for different people. So our innovation was probably focused on how we did that, not on what we gave to the consumer. 

The second mission is to follow the consumer. Pretty obviously, we have an away-from-home business, we serve bakeries and restaurants and schools and we’re actually very big in that business, and hospitals as well. I know it sounds crazy, but if you’re a medical worker and you’re working too long and you can have a Nature Valley bar in your backpocket, that’s actually slightly comforting. So the question became, how did we make sure that the work we did around servicing hospitals actually gets amplified? And in reverse, there’s a lot of kids that rely on their school meal to give them some decent nutrition for a day. So when the kids couldn’t go to school to get their meals, we started working with the schools to get meals to kids.

And then from a marketing point of view, our third response has been reaching consumers where they are. We were lined up as one of the 10 partners for Quibi, I don’t know if you saw Jeffrey [Katzenberg] in the [New York] Times, but we’re in.

The environment changed for Jeffrey and Meg [Whitman.] It was no longer an on-the-go platform, but it could have been an in-between platform. And it still is an in-between platform. Waiting for a Zoom meeting to start and watching an episode of “Chrissy’s Court” is actually quite a bit of fun. 


Do you think timing is part of the reason why Quibi has underperformed so far? 

With things like Quibi, I think, “Yeah you might not doing as well as you thought you were going to be Jeffrey, but people are maybe not going to be doing the same things that they were before. And you were a pretty good concept for the world that you went into, you might actually be a stronger concept coming out.” 

I don’t know if you’ve watched any of the content, but obviously I have since we’re partnering with them. And it’s very high-quality content. I quite like watching a 12-minute episode. There’s a bit of me where I remember first coming to America in the late ‘80s, you’d watch an episode of a show and every 6 minutes they’d break for an ad. Whereas in Britain, you’d wait 20 minutes before an ad break. So it’s quite an interesting concept, where you could watch three episodes in a row if you want to. But it makes 48 minutes for an episode feel like a long time.

The last two months have brought lots of shifts in the e-commerce space for food. Do you have any plans to do something like what PepsiCo is doing by taking their food brands direct to consumer with

Maybe, but I can’t tell you. [laughs] But we have a few advantages. We have a dog food business called Blue Buffalo. Dog food is one of the things that is more ordered online that let’s say fresh vegetables, so we have a pretty good track record of performing well in that channel. Grocery in general in North America is 95% store-bought. So we’ve been slower I guess than let’s say entertainment to win the digital means of delivery and commerce, but actually General Mills has a disproportionate share of our groceries in going to e-commerce.

There was a report recently that found [26% of grocery shoppers] were using an online service for the first time in March compared to the previous March. So there’s an opportunity there for the grocery business to expand. So we’ll work a little harder to make sure those who are shopping digitally see our brands and products and make a little bit more effort to make sure all your marketing is shoppable.

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is we’re actually a pretty big publisher of food content. When you think about and and, we have a very large audience. That also tells us who's coming and what they're looking for. One of the things that was interesting as the period of isolation started and kept on going, we were getting younger people coming as first-time visitors to learn the joy of cooking something fast and casual at home. So that fast-casual cooking trend and us pivoting our content to appeal to the people who are a little more in the learning phase of cooking, that’s another example of how we innovated and pivoted. We all heard for five years about millennials and Gen Z and the experience economy. Now they’ve discovered they can create their own experiences. They can create new experiences at home quickly, cheaply and delightfully — and sometimes with General Mills products.


How have you adjusted your marketing mix over the last two months, and how do you see that looking for the remainder of the year?

When you read all the stuff about how ad budgets are going to go down, one of the sectors where that won’t happen, I hope, is in food. At the moment, we’re maintaining consumer engagement, but we’re slightly refacing it. For example, e-commerce. If that’s going to accelerate for us, we’ll make sure we’re helping fuel that acceleration. So we’re spending the same amount of money, just spending it slightly differently. 

And for 20 years now, it’s not just been about buying the media. It's about partnerships and getting yourself into culture and experiences. For example, Chance The Rapper [and The Twilight Awards], that was a partnership deal, and you'll see us maintaining pressure behind our brands. 


What’s your take on what the tone should be in ads as we enter this phase 2 of re-opening the country? Are you as fatigued as many of us are with the homogeneity of the COVID-19 response ad?

I was watching TV last night, me and my wife, and one of the ads was all about being alone together. She’s an ad exec as well, and I said, “who do you think this is for?” And we both started guessing who it was far. You could have any brand at the end of it.

I do think there's a role for that, but I also think there’s a role for just an old-fashioned Cheerios ad. It makes you feel like, even though the world is in a strange place, it brings a little red thread back to a brighter time. It works differently for different age groups, but it’s a little moment of comfort for some of those age groups. 

And beyond that, we’ll continue to follow where the consumer is. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be a billboard sales person, but I probably don't mind trying to espouse the possibilities of partnerships with Instagram stars or TikTok stars. We’re also sitting there going, “have you really thought about the power of radio for certain demographics?”


What have you learned about the continued importance of marketers being a force for good in times like these? 

Putting a number on it is nowhere near as important as our commitments to help feed school children. Of course, the money helps as well. We’ve done corporate actions which are coming from our foundation, but we’re also doing brand actions. 

I’ll give you one example from the Middle East. An 8-year old boy wrote to [Betty Crocker] on Facebook and said, “How come all the cooking instructions are directed at women on your pack? I want to learn how to cook and I’m cooking with my dad.” So we changed the packaging. Twenty million packages of Betty Crocker in the Middle East got changed as a result of an 8-year-old boy saying, “Hey, my dad’s now cooking. How can you address me?” That doesn’t sound like it’s in the same bracket as being a force for good, but it is. And we’re proud of those actions too.


Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.


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