Mark Addicks Q&A: Finding the Consumer State of Mind at General Mills

As chief marketing officer at General Mills, Mark Addicks has managed some of the world’s best-known consumer brands.

In his 25 years at General Mills, Mark Addicks has managed some of the world’s best-known consumer brands. Now, as chief marketing officer, Addicks directs the $17 billion company’s efforts in an arena that’s changing virtually daily.

Addicks will be a keynote speaker at Thursday’s annual conference of the American Marketing Association—Minnesota. His topic: “Innovation Intersection—Reinventing Innovation at General Mills.”

Addicks spoke with me about keeping up with today’s consumer. His remarks are edited from an interview.

MarkAddicks_2012_thumb.jpg                     Mark Addicks

MinnPost: What are the biggest changes in the marketing business during your time at General Mills?

Mark Addicks: There are two. One is how the consumer engages with brands, and it’s all driven by digital technology. We’ve talked about a digital revolution since 1998. And I feel now we really are in the digital revolution. The traditional ways we’ve gone to market are radically starting to change. The idea of marketing to the mass is less salient because now you can really micro-target and be more relevant to people.

Second is the composition of the marketplace itself. In general, we’re a much more multicultural nation than we were 25 years ago.

MP: What are the key challenges faced by marketers today?

MA: One thing you’d want to say to people: Remember the fundamentals. There are certain things that stay true over time. As someone who is a student of everything that came before me at General Mills, it’s interesting to look at some of the evolutions of our brands.

Betty Crocker was very community-driven: communities of bakers, communities of homemakers. In history, that brand was very much about finding that community of people who wanted to make home. It was extremely social, it was extremely grass-roots; it had a cause in mind.

I’m a big believer as a marketer that everything old becomes new again. So make sure that you get the marketing fundamentals right.

There’s also something I’ve experienced myself, and I see it in my peer set. Right now, we’re living in a time when you have a new vehicle popping up every six months and reaching a pretty massive scale. There can be a tendency, if you’re not careful, to chase shiny toys. You still have to have the principles in mind and be pretty thoughtful about how you orchestrate an engagement across a set of marketing levers. We had TV, we had coupons, we had in-store. Today we have a much bigger palette, but you have to choose carefully.

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MP: You’re addressing innovation in your keynote. How do you bring that to life?

MA: You think about what you do every day, and then you think of innovation as a separate conversation—when, in fact, innovation is like oxygen. Today, in a faster-moving environment, people can look at consumer offerings around the world. So it’s fundamental that the brand renews what it can do for the consumer in new and different ways.

You must define and stay true to what the brand stands for and the benefits it will uniquely deliver. But step two has always been: What innovation will you bring to the marketplace this year that will make that brand even more powerful?

So part of what I will mention and show is how small brands in today’s world, which is very flat, can overtake large brands. You think of Method—they’ve built a wonderful brand right under the noses of P&G and Unilever.

MP: How are you spending your marketing dollars differently than 10 years ago?

MA: What you probably expect—certainly we’ve shifted some from TV to digital and social.

But what you wouldn’t expect: We were very early on the thought of “Say, do, be.” So we’ve been early on aligning our brands with causes that consumers of that brand care about, as a way of demonstrating that we understand you, we care about things you care about.

You’re seeing a lot of content across the board on brands where you’d expect to see it, like Betty Crocker how-to videos. But equally on some of the other brands—for example, a cereal that you’d never expect would have the entertainment content around it.

Lucky Charms is a 49-year-old brand. And for the first time we’re going out with campaigns targeting men in their 20s. We’ve got the “Chase for the Charms” campaign [with games, videos and other promotions]. You’re going to see more of that.

MP: How do you target the many different consumer groups you’re trying to reach now?

MA: First and foremost, we try to define who the brand is for. And increasingly it is a psychographic. What we’re finding on our journey in digital is that you can see more on what the psychology of the consumer is.

I’m really excited about Big Data. I don’t think it’s either/or [old marketing vs. new]. There’s plenty of room for intuition and creativity. Big Data just gets you to a richer starting point; it gives you a way to be in better service to your consumer.

Take a brand like Old El Paso: before, the message was, “Have a Mexican dinner.” Now, you know they really want it on two particular nights. So you can take the money you were spending on advertising the brand, and use it to deliver recipe ideas right when they need them. It’s a precision play that allows you to be more helpful to them.

You can break those consumer segments into smaller communities of shared interests and speak to them with more relevance. It’s not a big thought. The more specific you can be in being helpful to people, the more happy and thankful they’re going to be.

MP: What is your most important function as chief marketing officer?

MA: Always to agitate for growth. I have the luxury and the fun of looking across our brand portfolio, and I should be the person who’s inspiring people to grow the meaning of their brands—bringing them the best practices externally, and setting up the best training and development.