Spring '13 Brand

February 3-6, 2013 | Amelia Island, Florida

General Mills' "hacker" approach to marketing


Social media moves fast, and smart marketers know how to experiment and adapt quickly. Here's how one company stays ahead of the curve by embracing change.

Agile marketers plan for change. They look for shifts in the marketplace, they work quickly, and they work courageously to push boundaries. Truly agile marketers know that the key to unlocking brand growth is to do away with traditional processes. For many brands, this isn't an easy task -- but it is certainly a worthwhile one.

"It's all about using content and data to get at the moment of truth faster," said Jim Cuene, director of interactive marketing for General Mills, during his keynote address at the iMedia Brand Summit in Amelia Island, Fla.      

Getting to that truth can be tricky. By nature, marketers are data-driven and tend to look for moments of truth in post-sale data. Comparatively, consumers are much harder to pin down because they don't always tell the truth.

In order to tackle this problem, General Mills endeavored to change its digital marketing approach from a 12-month to an "always learning" model. Cuene decided that the best place to start was from the beginning -- that is, with the company's roots. The General Mills story began with wheat farmers on the American plains. Cuene noticed that the company's agrarian history revealed itself in its marketing model; it was rational, gritty, conservative, worked in annual cycles, and leaned heavily on legacy. Understanding that digital marketing offers new tools for old problems, Cuene's solution was to update the brand's approach to marketing.

In order to start brand building in the networked world, Cuene decided that the traditional marketing approach needed to be thrown out in favor of the "hacker" approach. This meant switching up the archetype of the marketers they hired -- academics were replaced by those who executed ideas with a "hacker" mentality. The hacker style to marketing relied on five steps:

  1. Observe the trends.
  2. Quickly build something stemming from that observation.
  3. Put it out on the market.
  4. See if it works.
  5. Repeat again and again.

"Done is better than perfect," Cuene said. The switch in mentality was a real challenge for General Mills because the hacker approach meant responding to change over following a plan, which can be a very scary thing.

Another major shift happened when the General Mills marketing team began to rely more on individuals and intuition and less on data. "The more we relied on data, the more that became a defense against being courageous," Cuene said.

Cuene cited the Reese's Puffs cereal campaign to illustrate these new marketing tactics. The challenge was to take a classic brand and modernize it to jumpstart growth. Using Facebook as the social hub, Cuene's team started to post memes like the one below.

The team moved fast. If a meme was thought of in the morning, it was posted by the early afternoon. The longest turnaround was for a series of animated shorts that took a month to complete. The idea was to "just put it out there to interact with our fans," Cuene said.

The brand even recycled memes. Cuene's team reworked some of the creative by adjusting the typography and visual elements to see if the response would change, and it did. That taught Cuene that appearance really matters.

In the end, the campaign's total spend was less than it costs to run a single TV spot. The Reese's fan base grew, and as a result, the brand was able to scale back as it adopted a more organic acquisition model. CPMs were dramatically lower, brand lift was higher, intent to buy was stronger, and recommendations increased -- all because the brand started working in a much more agile and consumer-centric way.

Jennifer Marlo is associate editor of iMedia Connection

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