General Mills Marketing Exec Ann Simonds Sizes Up Digital World, Competition

By Mike Hughlett
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

MINNEAPOLIS

The formula for success in packaged food used to be pretty straightforward. Kick out a few innovations here and there, and maintain stalwart brands, Cheerios, Green Giant, Betty Crocker, through heavy TV advertising.

Barriers to entry were high, and packaged food companies like General Mills were seen as stable, profitable investments. Then came the Internet, and thousands of people were voicing millions of opinions on food. How was it grown? Who made it? And so on. Customers got more skeptical of big food companies. And young food firms figured they could spread their message digitally; TV wasn’t a necessity.

The established packaged food industry watched its sales stagnate. Welcome to Ann Simonds’ working world. She’s the chief marketing officer of General Mills, maker of everything from soup to yogurt. Simonds has been at General Mills for 20 years, serving as head of the Minneapolis-area company’s baking division from 2006 to 2014, when she took on the CMO role.

Q: It seems like consumers these days are more skeptical about the packaged food industry. When did that start and why? How do you deal with it in marketing?

A: I think it was sometime over the last 10 years and for sure in the last five. We’ve had to earn our consumers’ trust in a different way, and I think at the heart of that is a growing mistrust in general of large institutions, public companies and other trusted authorities. Today, consumers seek real food and wellness more than science-driven health.

Q: So real food and wellness is more associated with small, while science is seen as big and complicated?

A: I think real food manifests itself in fresh and healthful ingredients. It’s less processed. Most likely you learned about it from a trusted friend. The endorsement of someone you trust, someone you know personally and who has tried or engaged in a brand or product, was and always will be the most powerful form of marketing. And what’s exciting about this era is that social networks give us the opportunity as marketers to be part of that conversation.

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