- Brad Hiranaga of General Mills says that a marketer’s job is not to create advertisements but to create markets. Hiranaga says the best marketers understand the fundamentals of the business and think creatively about how products can solve problems.
- Hiranaga talks about career risks that have paid off and others he has had to learn from. In the end, he says, research and data is important but with consumer food products you have to trust your gut and consider the consumer first.
- He says risk-taking is important in marketing, and if you have an idea you could get fired for, it is probably a good one.
- When asked how General Mills was modernizing some of its brands, Hiranaga said the company has started to work with the entertainment industry. He says there are a lot of people in Hollywood that grew up with these products and are excited to work with brands, like Lucky Charms and Count Chocula.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
Brad Hiranaga is the Chief Brand Officer for General Mills North America. He sat down with Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein at the Cannes Lions Festival to discuss his role and how the industry is changing. Following is a transcript of the video.
Sara Silverstein: The role of marketer has changed so much as consumer behavior has changed and the way that consumers consume media has changed. So what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen?
Brad Hiranaga: Wow yeah, there’s so many great changes that are happening and so much disruption. And I think some of the bigger ones that we’ve seen — General Mills being in the food industry and being in the food industry for a long time, 150 years — I think the amount of change that’s happened within food trends the last decade have been pretty monumental.
So natural organic has obviously started as a niche trend and now that’s a mainstream thing — that’s a huge part of our business now, and a decade ago it was a very small part. I think on the other end of the spectrum, you have value brands. Private label was kind of a nonentity in terms of what it stands for — now private-label brands are becoming large. So those are two things that are really changing the dynamic of how we think about our brands and shoppers.
And then technology of course is a huge, huge shift. And so just how people are getting their food. Through things like Amazon and Walmart and the push that people are wanting their food like not a week ahead, but like right when I want it immediately. And so, we’re having to think about how to set up to take advantage of that new behavior.
Silverstein: It seems so much more integrated than it used to be. How did those initiatives come? Do they come from marketing? Do they come from conversations with the consumer and then get prioritized in other parts of the company? Has that relationship changed?
Hiranaga: Yeah, so with our company and being in the CPG space for a long time, it’s always really been marketing driven, and the consumer is at the heart of that. So we try to stay as far ahead as we can with consumers and understand those trends and bring them back in. And then really relying on marketing to figure out like where are the markets going to be and how they’re going to exist.
And so marketing kind of plays the hub and then the other functions really cue off that to be able to support it. So what kind of products we need to be making with R&D, how we need to set up our relationships with customers and sales? And then my group, which leads all the brand experience — how do we set up so every interaction a consumer has with us is additive and solving a problem? So it really is pushing us into, "Where are going to go next?" Marketers have to lead that because they’re really, in our company at least, and I think many others, seeing where the future is and also having to make it happen like in the current-present day to drive results.
Silverstein: And how do you look forward and what are you looking to do? You are the head of marketing for a very established older company. How do you keep it young and fresh for the next generation?
Hiranaga: Well, I think it’s things like coming to Cannes and being able to get inspired by other people and the things that other companies are doing. It’s easy for us to look in our own industry and say, "Okay, great other competitors are doing these things, or customers are doing those things," but I like to look at other industries. So technology is really great. We spend time in the Bay Area quite a bit to understand what are new startups in technology. What are new startups in food, why are they existing, what’s happening there? Coming to places like this which is all about creativity, or going to CES that’s about technology.
And so I think getting out to different places and bringing leadership out to experience, it is really important. And so even on this trip, we brought a couple pretty senior leaders so they can experience it too. Because when they see the changes that are happening, getting them back into building, it allows us to just like use their momentum to create that kind of change.
The last thing I would say, is we’re also trying to really cross-pollinate different levels of people in our own company. So if you’ve been around a company for 20 years, you’re gonna have one perspective. But then having people that are just out of college coming in and talking about how they use media, how they’re connected with their networks, what things they’re passionate about. It just creates a lot of different ideas about where you should be doing marketing.
Silverstein: And for somebody that’s interested in marketing, I presume that the skills that you’re looking for, and people that you’re hiring today, is different than the skills that you were looking for when you first started?
Silverstein: And so what is the best advice you could give somebody who’s looking to get into marketing?
Hiranaga: So I had a marketing mentor that told me this quote, and I think it’s always stuck with me: marketing is about creating markets. And so I think that’s exactly true. A lot of times it can be seen as, "Oh, I’m just creating advertising." But marketing is much broader than that. So there’s so many places that you can show up as a marketer.
I think that there’s two things to really focus on. I think one side, you want to understand what drives a business and that’s kind of the fundamentals of — understand how P&L works, understand how forecasting works, those are basic things. But then I also think you need to think about creativity and imagining what things, products and brands, can solve. And really think about the bigger picture put together with the smaller kind of more every day tactical executional ones — I think makes the best marketers. We call them "and" people at General Mills, that can do the big and the small — can take right brain and left brain. And those people I think are really adept at any situation in presenting a clear picture of the future, but also making it really attainable for their current employees.
Silverstein: And from tangible perspective, what is the goal that you’re working on right now at General Mills?
Hiranaga: Yeah, it was funny, I was going to answer that differently, because you said tangible, and this feels a little broader. So I think one of the big things that we’re working on now is a five-year facing plan of how we’re gonna grow our North American business which is about 70% of our current mix — 70% of current sales at General Mills.
For me, that is really focus on the trajectory of where the food industry — where our businesses and brands are going to go. And really thinking about our brands and all the great things they do. We have Cheerios, Yoplait, and Nature Valley — individually they’re awesome. But we haven’t necessarily thought about how to create portfolio solutions at a level that can really make people lives better and solve bigger problems using the whole portfolio in new ways.
I’m really focused on that because that’s going to probably require different organization structures, different incentives, different culture. And our brands are always gonna be like the most important asset, but I think how we serve them up, based off technology and consumer changes, it’s gonna look different. So I’m really, really focused on that.
Silverstein: That’s so interesting because I was just gonna ask, does it matter if Cheerios, the branding for that is in line with the other brands messaging? And how do you do what you just said, how do you make it serve the consumer to be loyal to all of your brands?
Hiranaga: Yeah, and it’s hard because —
Silverstein: Two totally different questions.
Hiranaga: No, that’s really good, no, it’s awesome. I think it’s actually a really great question because we, as a company as General Mills, haven’t really — we don’t market General Mills as a company. It’s kind of more of a broad umbrella across many different food brands.
And if you think about a couple brands, just for example, like in our portfolio you have like Pillsbury on one side, which has been around forever, is about kind of Americana, about coming home and has these great products that are in the refrigerated dough section, which is seen as kind of like old fashioned a little bit. And that’s a brand that’s really based on like traditional American values, it’s really strong in the Midwest and South. And then we have other brands like Annie’s which is an amazing, newer brand that’s born out of Berkeley, California, and has different views on the world. And so as a marketer, you might have to work on both those brands and they’re in different life stages, they have different points of view, they’re purposes are way different. And so it’s really important, first and foremost, is to know that brand and where’s it’s coming from and then know the consumer. And we have to be adept at doing different things. I mean working for one brand, and one company, sometimes I’m like, "Oh, I wish I could just work for one brand, it’s so much easier." But then you just get a lot more creativity and excitement by moving people around at different challenges and so I like it a lot. It keeps I think a lot more agile in terms of being able to respond to different opportunities as they present themselves.
Silverstein: And you have to take risks in marketing it seems to really make waves sometimes. Is there a risk that you’ve taken that totally paid off?
Hiranaga: Yeah, well this one quote that I love that we say in our company is, "If you’ve got an idea that you think you might get fired for it’s probably a really good one." One that comes to mind a couple years ago that was pretty against what I think we’d be comfortable doing at General Mills is — and this is before where we are today — but Denver had just, Colorado had just legalized marijuana.
We thought, you know what, our Totino’s Pizza Roll business is super compatible with that particular product. We didn’t obviously want to like encourage people to take part in marijuana, but it was such a newsworthy thing in Denver that we did a really smart, specific marketing plan, that was very strategically targeted towards people of the appropriate age and disposition, and it was outdoor, and it was social, and experiential, a very different kind of plan that we’d made.
We had this idea that was about, live free, couch hard, which is what Totino’s is about, and the specific idea was called, better when baked. And it was about baking the pizza rolls — so they’re better in the oven than the microwave — and we launched that. That was a big risk for our leaders to take, to do something like that at the time but they leaned into it because we kind of had done the work ahead of time. And the market results were that we grew that market in Denver about 20% on a shoestring marketing budget.
And so it’s things like that when you know they’re right for the consumer, and right for the brand, that they’re worth the risk because they can kind of payoff with business results and it’s propelled that brand to be kinda of a cool lifestyle brand that it was not before.
Silverstein: And is there a risk you can think of that didn’t pay off quite as much — that you learned something from?
Hiranaga: Yeah, I would say, similarly on that business, one of the brands that we had was also Totino’s Pizza and it’s been around forever — it’s like literally a value pizza for a dollar, which is a huge great value. We changed the packaging of that to not actually come in a box, but actually come in more of a sleeve. And we did all of this consumer testing, we thought we got it totally right, and when we launched it, sales fell pretty precipitously for the first couple months.
And there was some very obvious things that we hadn’t done that as a human empathy type of thing we should’ve done — because we were doing more standard research. And it taught me the research and the data is important, but also the consumer gut — we’re selling consumer food products, like trust your gut. And so that for me was like a step back. Like that was not a great plan, but we quickly then adjusted and figured out what did we miss and relaunched it that way, and the business has gotten back actually to growth. But it was a good lesson in humility and we’re here for the consumer first. If we’re gonna change something they value, we better have a good reason for it.
Silverstein: There’s been a big shift to privacy in the tech space and I don’t know how much this affects your business, but I am interested, how do you think that that will affect advertising as we move forward?
Hiranaga: I think it’s huge. I mean we work with all the major platforms. And so we have a really high standard for our brands and our consumers. And making sure that they’re always — our advertising shows up in safe environments, that our consumers information is treated really fairly and in the right kinds of ways.
And so I think our kind of expectation of those partners is they make sure that they’re doing what they need to do to solve problems to make sure that their consumer data is handled the right way for their platforms. And so we’ve really expressed that. We meet with them a lot because we are a big spender with them and I think we’re gonna be, obviously, staying close to that to make sure that their expectations keep up with ours. And so I think it’s important for us to know too. You know, we rely on working through customers to like learn about our consumers and so, it’s not necessarily as front and center for us, but because of our partners it’s an issue that we have to like stay on top of.
Silverstein: And I’m asking everybody this. Is there a campaign that somebody else created that when you saw it it was so brilliant that you felt like, man, I wish I had created that campaign? It doesn’t have to be this year.
Hiranaga: Wow, there’s lots of stuff that I love. I mean this year’s one that I’ll say first, and then I’ll give you a followup answer. I think every marketer here will probably say the same thing around Nike, and I’m a huge fan of Nike. So the way that they did the Kaepernick, kind of as a spokesperson and really taking chances, just represented a pretty crucial moment in marketing for brands taking a stand. Because I think all brands want to take a stand, but when push comes to shove it’s easy to kind of fall back into the middle. And so I admire the courage for that and I’m glad that the brand and the business results have really paid off.
I would say from a broader perspective a brand that I have like a marketer crush on and had one for a long time, is Red Bull.
I love Red Bull’s marketing because it’s not about campaigns specifically. But it’s about how they take a brand, and passion points, and create new things around it in a way that’s about giving you the courage to do whatever you want. And starting as like an energy drink and moving into basically being a media creative entertainment entity is like a total reframe of the market.
And I think brands have the ability to play in a small box, or a big one, and they’ve said, we’re gonna play in the biggest box possible. And so as a marketer that’s super cool to see how that they’ve blown that out to a total new level.
Silverstein: Your portfolio of brands has been around for a long time, many of them have existed for a very long time, how do you modernize some of those brands? What campaigns are you working on?
Hiranaga: You know, it’s funny because a lot of folks that now are in positions in companies and around different industries, grew up with a lot of these brands in their houses. So there is a strong affinity that we’re really tapping into people who are highly influential in different industries.
And so we’ve been actually starting to work with the entertainment industry a little bit and in the fall of last year we came out to Hollywood with a couple of our brands and said, "Do you wanna work with Franken Berry or Lucky Charms?" And it was amazing to see people come out of the woodwork and say like, "I grew up with those brands, I love them, I would want to do a movie with Count Chocula."
And so we have the opportunity to work with partners in new ways and I think it’s probably showed up the best way, over the last couple years, in the partnership that we’ve created with Ellen DeGeneres and with Cheerios. And so Cheerios has been this brand that’s been around for a long time, built on positivity. It’s like, oats give you great energy in the morning so they’re good for you, they make you feel good, they make you do good things and they create this virtual cycle of goodness.
We really tapped into that and found partners like Ellen who also believe in kindness and positivity and try to combine our ecosystems together to do bigger things. And when we came to her the first thing she said is, "I think we should do one million acts of good together," and we’re like, that’s exactly what we want to do. And so we took our brand and pulled it in all these different places. And so people would come on her show, or people would show up with our customers, and we would have little micro campaigns that we’d do acts of good.
One of the families that she brought to us was a family that was struggling financially. They had three boys, but they would always do good things for other people. So we decided to give them a million dollars from Cheerios. Five-hundred-thousand dollars went to them for themselves and $500,000 was for them to give to other people. And to capture the things, and the moments, and the experiences that people have when they are able to give something, that is like the true definition of good goes around.
And so it’s been really cool to see. And partnerships with the right kinds of people, and the right kinds of other companies, I think are how brands are modernizing themselves. And so I only see us doing more of that. And Cheerios has been amazing example because people see the brand and they’re happy, and we want to translate that into something bigger — especially with the context of the current world. And so, it’s fun to work on a brand that’s doing that.
Silverstein: And Cheerios is one of the brands that I associate with diversity and —
Silverstein: And using diversity early and I don’t know if that’s true. Again, I’m not a marketing expert, but it certainly for me is one of the brands that has been dealing with that early. Do you think other, that any of the brands, or anyone who is doing enough in diversity and how we show people in media?
Hiranaga: I think some brands are getting started on it and I think there’s a ton of opportunity. I think part of that is how brands show up in the market place through things like advertising. And casting has been a good starting point over the years for brands that showed different people. But it actually starts at the inside on different cultures and what people believe, and if you do that the right way and then that carries through to the end point, then that actually will make something that’s really useful for people.
What also happens is that if we hire more diversity and inclusion — whether it’s gender, or sex, or gender, or affinity, or demographics of any sort at General Mills. When people see themselves represented in creative work, it makes them feel more proud about the company, and we actually use their insights to build our brands and build our business. And so I think it’s a flywheel that is actually really important, not because only it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business and good for the employees. And so we’re doing a lot of that stuff. I know other people are starting to do more of it, but there’s a lot of opportunity to do more in the future.
Silverstein: If and how should brands get involved in political and social conversations?
Hiranaga: Yeah, I think the brand, this goes back to the brand really knowing what it’s for and what it’s about. And I think sometimes brands can make the mistake of trying to take a stance on a bunch of different things that at some point you’re like, "Well, do I really care what a toilet paper brand thinks about this specific issue?" Maybe I do, but maybe I don’t.
But I think are certain things that brands have to fundamentally believe in and they have to take a stand on it if it’s important for them.
You know we have a brand, Betty Crocker, that’s been around for almost a hundred years and was built in a totally different time, but it’s a brand about creating all being equal and help for all families. And so a few years ago, it took a stance on gay marriage. And for us that was a huge deal because that was like a big thing to say, but it was the right thing for that brand at the moment and the right thing for our consumers and so we leaned in more on an issue than we might have in other places. And so brands can have a huge impact when they do it the right way. That’s the Nike example again, I think that’s really great to see a big brand do that, but I also think they have to decide where they wanna play and where they do not, and also be careful not to play in a place where they get caught up in this world where they might actually ruin their business either.
- WeWork’s advertising expenses have exploded by 164% on its way to one of the most anticipated IPOs of 2019
- Uber has tapped the CMO behind the ‘I love NY’ campaign to be its new VP of global marketing a few weeks after laying off 400 people
- Brands can no longer stay away from social and political issues. We asked some of the biggest names in the industry how to do it right.