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General Mills brand chief on pivoting harder into solving problems, delivering joy

Cheerios are 'fuel for positive energy'

The pandemic has allowed General Mills to fully activate its internal mantra of being a force for good. Brand chief Brad Hiranaga details how this US food giant is altering its marketing plans to take action based on the needs of the moment.

Are you a human Cheerio? Let’s see: are you a beacon of positivity dedicated to doing good? This is General Mills North America chief brand officer Brad Hiranaga’s characterization not only of his brand but of marketers.

“The silver lining of Covid-19 is that it has accelerated, forced, whatever you call it, marketers to really come forward with solutions,” he says. “It’s leaning into that understanding of the customer, where they’re facing problems and what triggers can be there to solve their problems.”

General Mills, which has fared well financially amid the crisis, hasn’t shied away from the big issues: hunger, health, social change and education. As the pandemic has progressed, the company has looked for new ways for its brands to help support families. A few examples:

  • Evolving ’Box Tops for Education’ to account for distance learning. A back-to-school campaign, breaking later this month, will explain: "no matter what school looks like, Box Tops for Education can help make a difference." It will tout that the fact that families can use the Box Top app to earn funds for their schools for cleaning supplies, take home materials and technology. The creative will focus on the "amazing educators that are going above and beyond to meet the needs of their students during this challenging time." This initiative has raised nearly a $1bn for school supplies to date.

  • Working with Serena Williams to donate media to the Equal Justice Initiative. General Mills donated media that it had originally been earmarked to promote Wheaties and the fact that Williams is the featured athlete through the fall. “The social injustice happened right in our backyard, in Minneapolis, with the killing of George Floyd. We asked, ’where and how do some of our brands help?’”

  • Donating $1.3m to No Kid Hungry earlier this month and launching an Instagram content series to “spread positivity and inspire acts of good“ with cheer champion Jerry Harris. “With Covid-19 striking and putting people out of work and the economy being down, we are at the point right now where one-in-four kids could be facing some sort of hunger problem this summer and in the fall,” says Hiranaga.

’Delivering joy’ direct to consumers

But what about Cheerios? Hiranaga sees the cereal as “fuel for positive energy”. This is the theme behind the new creative breaking today. The animated spots feature people waking up happy and joyfully helping one another. “The brand is focused on positive energy for families in the morning, which the world can use every bit of right now.” The campaign was created by Anomaly and animated by Strange Beast.

While Honey Nut Cheerios is one of the top-selling cereals in the US, General Mills has also decided to put some unexpected energy behind a brand it discontinued: Dunkaroos. In what is likely to be the beginning of many homages to the 90s, Dunkaroos was relaunched as a direct-to-consumer brand. General Mills will also sell apparel inspired by the cult brand. “There are new ways we can start to build brands directly with consumers, whether that’s through commerce, through licensing or partnerships. That’s where the new kind of marketing is really happening. It’s really exciting… the purpose here is just to let people engage with their younger selves and have a little fun.”

There is more to come. During General Mill's Q4 earnings call it said: "Bold brand-building is the lifeblood of a consumer products company, and we have plans in Fiscal ’21 to advance our efforts to meet consumers where they are with purpose-driven brands."

The way Hiranaga sees it: "by solving problems and delivering joy, [General Mills] can create loyalty and better resonance" with its current customers. “And because we’re doing more for them, we start to attract new people to our brands and categories, it creates a totally different marketing plan.”

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