By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

January 20, 2021 | 12 min read

Covid-19 didn’t rewrite the rules of marketing for food giant General Mills, but it did force 1,000 marketers to work more closely with the rest of the business. We catch up with its top marketer, Ivan Pollard, to hear about some of the business positives and creativity that came from a year of disruption.

General Mills is one of America’s biggest food producers. And in 2020, the company famous for bringing us Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Old El Paso and Lucky Charms found itself having to secure its supply lines and ensure it could meet the growing demand for at-home meals.

It was a disruptive year, to say the least. But for Ivan Pollard, the company’s global chief marketing officer and a nominee for this year’s WFA Global Marketer of the Year, that didn’t mean the fundamentals of marketing suddenly changed.

“This is going to sound wrong, but as marketers, we didn’t change much. After the initial shock wore off, our training kicked in. We did five things: we kept marketing, kept building brands, did some good, didn’t look to profit from the situation and we listened to the consumer. These are all equally weighted.

Pollard admits that the organization had to rally around its brand purpose, saying an empty shelf is a lack of us living up to our purpose”. Everyone within the organization was intent on keeping the mills milling. “With purpose, it’s easier to respond to situations.“

Working towards that singular goal of feeding people helped unify the business in a way Pollard has never seen, adding that there was all of a sudden afamilial” bond across all departments. “From the marketing point of view, we are now much more integrated with the other parts of the business. We are a more connected organization from the marketing supply chain to sales.”

These silos, he says, “are one of the challenges of the 21st century big businesses”. With each part of the business large enough to operate within its own right, he says “we’d almost forgotten that our departments are parts of a wider business”.

A Leeds United fan, Pollard adopts a football (or soccer) analogy, likening each department to a club football and the overall business to an international squad. “Sometimes you have to put down your club shirt and play for the country.” This requires gelling with the best-of-the-best from other teams (departments).

And: ”You’d be better playing total football and not some antiquated football strategy from the 1960s.” Because if you’re playing in an outdated framework, he adds, your personnel can only do so much.

2020, with its headwinds and work-from-home mentality, forced the organization to get better at mixing and matching expertise too. Pollard’s advice? “Acknowledge that people have skills, get them on the pitch and these specialist skills will help you score.”

Purpose: capitalizing v profiteering

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

The pandemic drove “an unprecedented increase in demand for food at home”. At-home eating, including meals, baking and cereal, was up. Pollard says his data sources she that cereal consumption was up both at breakfast and throughout the day.

“We had to adapt our purpose to the situation. We have to make great food and remind people why it is worth eating. Last year, the questions were: ’Can I afford it?’ ’Can I get hold of it?’ ’Can I trust it?’”

So as well as articulating its values in marketing, there’s the corporate voice – ie, how it impacts society, the environment and more. ”It’s not only in times of crisis that you need to live up to your purpose.”

But there’s inherent friction atop the grand talk of purpose that most corps grapple with. It’s the difference between meeting demand and exploiting need. We’ve seen prices of loo roll and hand sanitizer scalped, for instance. But organizations have to tread carefully, lest they look like they are profiteering from a situation. Brewdog, for instance, received some flak for offering up its pubs as vaccine centers then immediately mocking up a line of ales to mark the occasion.

Pollard explains the nuance by saying it’s his job to capitalize on a situation, not profiteer. “They are different things. They say never waste a good crisis, and it’s true. We’re a business, we need to make money, but most of the big businesses of today have the sensibility to do good and do good business at the same time.”

The creative levers

Pollard says his WFA nomination is testimony to the good work of his many marketers (although he’s told them all to lend their vote to P&G’s Mark Pritchard).

As for the campaigns produced by these marketers that help demonstrate their excellence and his nomination, he points first to Betty Crocker. It saw “double-digit“ sales growth in the Middle East, he says, buoyed by it listening to the concerns of an eight-year-old Emirati boy who asked it why the baking instructions were gendered for women.

It redesigned some 20m packs for more than 40 products and announced the changes in a heart-warming video from VMLY&R. 35m organic earned media impressions spread a good message and likely welcomed more male sales. “It was so much more than an ad. It said that the kitchen is for everyone. We saw good growth, but also contributed to society.”

Also worthy of mention, he says, is the #HaagIndoors campaign from Häagen-Dazs, which had to rethink a whole summer worth of sponsorship and activation. It worked to drive at-home ice cream nights with Secret Cinema for eight weeks of lockdown, with bespoke flavors matched to movie-picks on Amazon Prime. There were also some river cinemas in Paris and London.

Floating Cinema

Lastly, he points to Wheaties’ partnership with tennis star Serena Williams. With General Mills headquartered mere few miles from where George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, the death that rocked the world was particularly close to home for the organization. And so its partnership with Williams revolved around the Equal Justice Initiative to help support social justice. The brand lent its support to the star and her good cause without necessarily alienating anyone during a politically explosive time.

At the core of all these examples is keen, bold creative. Pollard is a firm believer in the power of creativity.

“Clients have eroded the partnership between agencies and clients and now there are trust issues. I’ve always been a super firm believer that creativity is one of the most powerful levers.

“We make food that people should love, but to get them to fall in love you need some understanding and emotional connection. You need the creativity of agencies, be it the creative itself or getting it to them at the right moment in the right way.”

He believes agencies deserve more than they’ve been getting paid historically. Right now, it is about supporting smaller agency partners and adapting ways of working with the bigger ones.

You can vote for Pollard, or any of the other finalists for the WFA Marketer of the Year Award, here.

WFA Global Marketer of the Year General Mills Marketing

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