Mark Addicks

Mark Addicks

Best Book I’ve Read This Year:
The Social Animal by David Brooks

Red, White, or Beer?
Fulton Beer

Favorite Vacation Destination:
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

WSJ or NYT?
NYT, plus WSJ on Saturdays

Since joining General Mills in 1988, Addicks has been recognized as a national leader in the marketing industry. We dig into the role of big data in marketing, the preeminence of yogurt, and the limitations of metrics in marketing.

Totino’s Pizza Rolls recently started a sponsorship deal with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). What does wrestling have to do with pizza rolls?

We always start [with the] consumer first. And those consumers, what we usually call our brand champions —the people that love the brand, who really own the brand, who advocate for the brand, tell others about it— they find parts of wrestling remarkable. And so affiliating something with them makes a lot of sense. It’s part of their lives already. There is always a rational connection back to the consumer.

Is Greek yogurt going to take over the world?

There’s a lot of Greek yogurt. . . . I don’t think Greek will become the whole category, but it’s going to be a part of it for a while. But I think the thing that’s fascinating about food, I’ve been doing this for 25 years at General Mills and some years before that, is you will see the markets continue to rapidly change.

Five years ago, seven years ago, we were talking about “no carbs” and the Atkins diet to the degree that we’re talking about Greek yogurt today. And today we’re not speaking about that as much.

What does “big data” mean for marketing?

Big data is important only to the extent that it brings something big to a consumer, OK? Our perspective is if we just focus on big data, we’ll lose the consumer. I think the real opportunity, with the right levels of privacy protected and the right permissions from consumers, is being more in service to consumers with what you offer. The data allows you to be more predictive. Because the data is nothing but an accumulation of past behaviors, right?

Do you see any downsides?

There’s always the opportunity of being too left-brained and not enough right-brained. Because data by itself, it hints at motivations, it hints at emotional needs, but it doesn’t tell you that. I have seen instances where consumer brands follow data out the window and they miss the connective emotion or need, right?

I think a lot of people would be surprised to find how data-intensive our world is today and probably how data-intensive it has always been. We are a company that launched Betty Crocker many, many years ago and we had recipe clubs and we had people sign up and collect points. We always operated from data.

With trends towards health-conscious diets, how does General Mills respond?

Very actively and probably more actively than some people realize. . . For instance, we literally changed our entire cereal line—and it was not an easy task—to be whole grain. We’re still the only company where all the cereals are whole grain. I believe today we are supplying, as a result, more than 20 percent of the whole grain consumed in America. . . . You’ve seen us bring down levels of sugar in a lot of our products.

With challenges to traditional brands, where do you see growth?

Clearly we’re growing internationally. That’s a huge growth driver for us. What you’re seeing internationally is a rise of a global middle class. . . . They want to recognize traditions, but they want more convenience. They’re concerned about value and they want to explore, they’re very curious. They want to taste foods of the world.

We have a dumpling brand in China that maybe will be a global dumpling brand. Old El Paso does well all over the world.

We have brands like Fiber One, which in my history with the company used to be a cereal with twigs, and is now literally a brand across categories. I think it represents the recognition of the importance of fiber, but fiber that tastes really good. I think the other big thing going on is you have 85 million Americans over the age of 50, and fiber is very important to them.

It seems that the disciplines of advertising, public relations, and marketing are blending together. How does that change your business?

Largely that’s because digital technology has made those things seem almost seamless, right? You can hear about an idea, you can search for it, Google it so to speak, and you can read about it in detail either from the perspective of a brand or from somebody talking about the brand and what it’s doing. And while you’re doing that you might get served a coupon to try the brand or some kind of incentive.

All these things are one click away, two clicks away, where in the past they were pretty distinctive in the world that I grew up in. I think from a marketing organization point of view, the tension is not losing the expertise of those functions, but orchestrating your consumer engagement so it has the best thinking of those functions.

What’s the biggest marketing mistake you ever made?

I’ve made this several times: not staying true to an idea. . . . I’m a guy who loves new products, I’ve done a lot of new products, but as you start to execute it there are people that start to say, “Well, we can’t really make the flake that way” or “You know that little jiggle of icing you wanted on everything, that costs like $2 million. So could we just give them a little coating of icing?”

You have to be very careful about being a listener and a leader who is innovative when you’re confronted with a problem, but be careful to not walk away from what really drove the idea.

What’s your least favorite business cliché?

I hate people talking about generic terms; so “innovation” and typical things like that. Those kind of drive me crazy because we live in a world of specifics. What kind of innovation?

What’s the best business advice you ever got?

One was “Be humble and be a good listener.” When it was given to me the word “listen” meant really “observe.” A person I worked with said, “Watch people. Watch their body language. Watch their level of commitment.”

Another really great piece of advice I got is “Be curious.” You can’t be a good marketer unless you’re curious beyond what you’re doing. That means be curious about all kinds of consumers, be empathetic.

Another one I love which I use a lot is “Find the irrational logic.” The example of that is there are a lot of consumer behaviors that are fairly irrational: they don’t make sense. But you’re trying to find the logic underneath so you can be helpful.

In the case of our Rice Chex cereals we saw a little bit of a bump in consumption. And we said, “What are they doing?’ All of a sudden Chex cereals is up.” Well, it was the beginning of the gluten-free movement.