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General Mills: Building Brand Champions

How training helps drive a core business process at General Mills
By Jack Gordon

When General Mills Inc. acquired Pillsbury in 2001, questions obviously arose about how best to integrate the two Minnesota-based packaged-food giants. Marketing was a special concern, given that both companies' brands were household names and even cultural icons. How would the Pillsbury Doughboy interact with Betty Crocker, the Jolly Green Giant, Cheerios, Wheaties, and the rest of the General Mills crew?

"When you double in size, everyone starts comparing notes about what they do and how they approach the customer," says Kevin Wilde, chief learning officer for General Mills. "We said, 'Let's get the best out of both of our marketing organizations. And let's not stop there.' " The question wasn't just how to identify, share, and integrate the best practices from both companies, Wilde says, but how to "move our expertise ahead" by searching out great brand-building ideas from other companies as well.

That goal led to the creation of a 4.5-day training program called "Brand Champions." Developed in 2002 and launched in 2003, the program to date has immersed more than 900 General Mills employees in the intricacies of how to build and maintain strong brands.

The stakes are high because consumers identify strongly with so many General Mills brands. When new package designs for Count Chocula and Frankenberry breakfast cereals were introduced in 2006, the new boxes appeared on eBay within a week, for sale to collectors.

In methodology, in follow-up, and in its link to vital business goals, Brand Champions has much to offer as an illustration of how excellent training can work.

Everyone a Brand-builder

The training program is not just for marketing specialists. Employees who work on particular brands attend in cross-functional teams—everyone on the Yoplait yogurt business team, for example, as well as people from outside advertising agencies involved with the Yoplait account.

The idea of bringing non-marketers to the course sprung from a general belief that "you can leverage beyond people's functional expertise," says Beth Gunderson, director of organization effectiveness. But specific benefits quickly became evident: "A person from human resources, for instance, would ask a provocative question [precisely because] she wasn't a marketer. And you'd see the look on the marketers' faces: 'Whoa, I never thought of that.' "

Including people from different functions also has served to improve communication throughout the company and reduce the level of uninformed griping among people with different specialties. "In any company," Gunderson says, "it's easy to cast stones at another function: 'Those marketers! What were they thinking?' But if you're in R&D [research and development], and you actually understand how the levers operate in other functions, it's harder to throw stones."

Ami Anderson, manager of marketing development and direct overseer of the Brand Champions program, says that workers in General Mills' production plants have asked for a "mini-version" of the course: "They want to understand the language marketers speak and why things are done as they are."

The program even helps General Mills attract talented new employees. The ability to say, "You'll get great training," is a powerful recruiting tool, says Wilde. "When we recruit MBAs on college campuses, we point to Brand Champions as an example of a program they'll experience early on."

Practice, Practice, Practice

The course is short on talk and long on action. Only about a fifth of it is lecture-based. The remaining 80 percent is devoted to hands-on exercises, with trainees working in teams to revitalize real brands from companies other than General Mills. Trainees zero in on a target audience, analyze that audience, choose unique benefits to communicate, and decide how to communicate those benefits. By the final day, trainees have developed an integrated marketing plan.

If the teams work with brands from other companies, don't they lack a great deal of research data that the actual sponsor would have? Yes, and for training purposes, that's an advantage, says Gunderson. "Market research data is great, but it becomes a crutch. When people are stripped of data, they're forced to think strategically about [matters such as] the underlying motivation of the consumer."

In fact, the brands often are ones that trainees don't use. "Unfamiliarity," Gunderson says, "makes you step back and think about what you can tell from their [the brands] packaging and positioning."

The course and its exercises emphasize factors such as how to define and hone in on a target audience. As Anderson puts it, "You can market hot tea or iced tea, [and there is a tendency to assume that] everyone must like warm tea, so warm tea would target both audiences. But then you realize you're targeting nobody. And, you can't just say, 'My target is women ages 18 to 49 who breathe in and out.' You have to know your customer. What is her day like?"

Once they have a clearly defined customer in mind, Anderson says, trainees tackle the question of how to communicate with that consumer. "How do I talk, in what language, with what vehicles, and when will they be open to the message?"

As trainees work out plans to build these outside brands, they also learn General Mills' own criteria for marketing and advertising campaigns, which are specific enough to be included in templates and checklists. The benefits? For one thing, Anderson says, when people evaluate "creative"—meaning TV or print advertisements, package designs, etc.—"everyone looks through a different lens. We teach people to use standard tools so that we're all looking at the same criteria to decide whether this is a good General Mills ad."

Standard criteria make life easier for outside advertising agencies, as well. Instead of hearing, "This just doesn't work for me," the agencies can operate from the same page as General Mills' marketing people, everyone using the same decision factors to determine exactly why an ad either works or doesn't.

"The feedback we get is that people come out of the course looking at brands and consumers in a whole new way," Anderson says.


To keep the learning fresh, relevant, and growing, General Mills follows up on the core 4.5-day Brand Champions program in at least two regular and formal ways.

One is a monthly online presentation sent to program "graduates" via e-mail. Anderson builds each presentation around an interesting branding effort she finds in the market, ending with key learning points.

For instance, one recent case was a "Nowwhat.com" television campaign by State Farm Insurance. In the commercials, a man's car door is blasted off by another vehicle, or a woman hands her car keys to a thief, mistaking him for a parking valet. Now what? the ad asks, and directs the viewer to nowwhat.com. When they go online, 18- to 25-year-old target consumers discover that they're dealing with State Farm Insurance, "hich they thought was their grandparents? insurance company," Anderson says. From August to October last year, State Farm saw a 10 percent increase in business from that target group, she says. "Okay, what can we learn from that?" ponders Anderson.

The second follow-up effort, called "First Wednesday" because it occurs on the first Wednesday of each month, is a live-speaker session. Recent guest presenters have included J. Walker Smith, president of marketing agency Yankelovich Inc., and Renee Mauborgne, co-author of Blue Ocean Strategy.

Like the e-mail presentations, the live events usually start by spotlighting significant developments in the marketing landscape: A meal-delivery service in India counts the calories in the food it delivers to homes. Coca-Cola and Nestle have partnered to develop a beverage that goes beyond the low-cal trend by actually burning calories. ("We don?t make beverages, but that's important," Anderson says.)

Home-furnishings chain Ikea has begun to sell not only furniture that the customer assembles at home but also Swedish meatballs and other food to be "assembled" at home.

A furniture store sells Swedish meatballs? Too sophisticated for cliches like "thinking outside the box," Anderson calls this an example of "laddering up what your brand stands for." And it has implications for General Mills. "For instance, Cheerios is a lot more than just a cereal. It's often a child?s first finger food. The target audience for Cheerios can be anyone from a baby to a 100-year-old."

After touching on cases such as Ikea and calorie-burning drinks, First Wednesday sessions move on to a segment called "Brand Champions at Work," which trumpet and analyze the recent successes of teams working on particular General Mills brands. In one brand team, for instance, the idea of getting more fiber in your diet led to thinking about how to visualize fiber, which then led to images of how many bowls of food such as broccoli a person would have to eat to get the amount of fiber contained in a bowl of Fiber One cereal. Thanks in large part to an ad campaign based on that idea, Anderson says, General Mills' Fiber One brand saw 26 percent growth in 2006.

Similarly, Betty Crocker is very well-known for packaged cake mixes, but less so for cookie mixes. Inspired by Brand Champions training, the cookie-mix team raised its sights to go after scratch bakers—a market 20 times the size of mix bakers. In other words, Anderson says, the team was "taking on grandma." The Betty Crocker mixes were reformulated until they could support advertising claims that the chocolate chip mix, for instance, tasted as good as Nestle's Original Toll House recipe. The campaign generated 15 percent growth for the Betty Crocker brand, which now owns 90 percent of the dry cookie mix category.

By calling out such triumphs, the trainers have an agenda that goes beyond pure learning. Marketing teams within the company are very competitive, says Wilde, "and when they see another team's success highlighted in Brand Champions at Work, they want to be next."

Thus, neither the learning nor the thinking nor the motivation generated by the core training program is allowed to fade. In a company where branding is a core business driver, the training function never lets go of the steering wheel.

Sidebar: Brand Builder Bios

Kevin D. Wilde, vice president, organization effectiveness, and CLO
How long at General Mills/in current position: 8 years
Prior positions: Spent 17 years at General Electric in a variety of roles, including global leadership development manager at Crotonville
Education: MS, Administrative Leadership and Adult Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; BS, Marketing and Education, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Ami Anderson, manager of Marketing Development
How long at General Mills/in current position: Five months, yet has been at General Mills for 12 years
Prior positions: Before General Mills, Anderson was a promotions assistant at Kraft General Foods.
Education: MBA, Marketing, Wharton-University of Pennsylvania; BS, Marketing, Franklin Pierce College

Beth Gunderson, director of organization effectiveness
How long at General Mills/in current position: Gunderson has been at General Mills for 20 years and in her current position for 10 years.
Prior positions: Gunderson has held positions in sales and technical service packaging materials.
Education: M.Ed., HR Development/Organization Effectiveness, St. Thomas University; BS, Package Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Stout


Brand Champions is one of the best ways General Mills has not only to train their employees in marketing but also to ensure that the best practices and learning experiences are transfer from one division to another. This program supports the company strategy of being a “Marketing Driven? company, since Brand Champions believes in training non marketing employees, so the company can leverage other functional experiences and improve communication throughout the company. GMI is committed to this program from upper level manager to lower level management, and it is used as a resource for different functional areas in the company.
Is not only the training is the follow up process that GMI has placed to make sure there is a continuous learning across the company and across the divisions. They have created the first Wednesday of every month where they bring speakers from outside of the company to update them in current success cases or sometime GMI employee’s present specific strategies that have achieve great results for their divisions. In addition, the champions portal; which is the company intranet has a Brand Champion section for all the employees to have access to the most recent and previous learning experiences.
GMI is using Brand Champions not only to train their employees but also to continuously learn about best practices, success cases and as a resource for finding potential candidates for marketing positions.