It’s 2014 Mr. and Mrs. Brand, do you know where your customers are? Do you know what they want? Do you know what they don’t want? Do you even know where they are? Needless to say if the word marketing, advertising, branding and so on are in your title or your department, you sure better know the answers to these questions or at the very least know someone who does.
For those work at one particular Fortune 500 brand there is such a person and she and her team, based on my discussion with her, not only have the answers to these questions but also have a lot lot more insight into their customers.
The brand is General Mills and the “she” I refer to is Jeanine Bassett who is the VP of Global Consumer Insights for the brand who makes products that I have surely consumed my fair share of and then some over the years. I spoke with her not along about the role of consumer insights, how it’s changed, where it’s headed and how General Mills uses consumer insights to not only help the brand but the consumer as well.
How refreshing, a brand not just thinking of itself and the bottom line. And it’s also refreshing to see a brand, be they large or small, realize that ours is a mobile world and that mobile permeates everything including research and insights.
Steve Olenski: What’s the biggest change or shift you’ve seen over the past 3-5 years in terms of consumer research/insight?
Jeanine Bassett: The biggest change I have seen is in how we source our insights. Our primary means of gaining insight used to be through traditional survey methods. These studies were quantitative, variables were controlled for and we obsessed about sample. We have not abandoned these tenets of market research, we are still conducting such studies. What has shifted is how we are looking at new streams of data from non-traditional venues. And we are thinking differently about our approach. We try less to control variability than to understand variability as we tap into raw consumer data readily available in social space. Source matters, context matters, even time of day. This has had implications for a researcher’s skill set. What is now required is an infusion of art into an industry historically based on science.
Olenski: What are some of the way General Mills uses consumer insights that both help the respective brand(s) but also the consumer?
Jeanine Bassett: Some of our best examples are related to how we have successfully used consumer insights to address health needs of our consumers. A great example is around gluten free. We had noticed for some time an increasing number of consumers seeking gluten-free products. As a grain-based category, cereal surfaced as one of the categories that consumers assumed they would have to abandon on a gluten-free diet. With over 90 percent of all households consuming cereal, this was a real pain point for consumers looking to transition to their new diet with a minimal amount of change. We were able to make a simple ingredient change to our Rice Chex line and added gluten-free messaging to our packaging. When we did that we saw just a phenomenal response. You would not believe the flow of love mail that followed.
A second example is around helping Mom pack healthy lunch bags for the kids. We learned that Mom really struggled to find options that her kids loved and met her health standards. Go-Gurt met that intersection, but moms weren’t confident about putting a dairy product in the lunch bag and having it sit in the locker until lunch time. So we did two things: we tweaked the product and then experimented with freezing it overnight to see if it could deliver the same taste and health benefits at lunch time as if you had just pulled it out of the refrigerator. We launched the revised version as well as a campaign to assure Moms that tossing a frozen Go-Gurt into the lunch bag in the morning would deliver a healthy, tasty treat a few hours later. That was a real winner for both Moms and the kids.
A key element in solving a pain point for consumers is in experiencing them yourselves. In an effort to supplement our quantitative approaches with increased consumer intimacy, we launched a new program last year called Consumer Treks. The intent is to create an easy way for everyone to get closer to our consumers through personal experience. We announce a new Trek each month, tying an immersion experience to a specific consumer pain point or target.
These are DIY exercises that don’t require a lot of time or money, but pack a big punch. For example, we have asked our employees to live on a consumer’s budget for a week, or shop at a bodega to experience shopping in an unfamiliar retail channel, or bring a bag lunch to work every day for a week under “school rules”. January’s Consumer Trek was about living a new diet – any diet. Many chose gluten-free and were shocked at how difficult it was. It gave us a whole new level of appreciation for how consumers were coping with the challenges of eating gluten free.
Olenski: Big Data is of course a very popular phrase these days. In your opinion is there such a thing as “too much data?”
Jeanine Bassett: There’s already more data than anyone could ever access, have knowledge of, or catalogue on their own. However, within the 4 walls of General Mills, we control the data spigot. It’s really on us to make sure we are disciplined about framing up what we’re looking for and understanding the amount of risk involved in order to provide guardrails around the amount and type of data we need to answer the question. When I see too much data surfacing, it’s usually when rigor has been misaligned to risk or we find ourselves on a fishing expedition because the question has not been well-articulated.
Olenski: As a follow up, how does General Mills weed through or decide which data is relevant and which is not?
Jeanine Bassett: Fortunately, a well-articulated question will get you 90% of the way there. The rest of the journey is less about relevance and more about data quality. We have people on our team who are dedicated data experts. Some are in the business of cleaning the data and repackaging it so that it’s useful – as most modern sources of data do not present themselves in neat rows and columns. Others are dedicated to learning about emergent data sources and understanding their biases. Over time, as we take a common event or topic and compare and contrast the “chatter” across many different social platforms on the same issue, biases clearly emerge. We take those into account as we weigh the relevance of that data to inform our decision-making.
Olenski: What does the future hold for consumer research/insight? What role will mobile play in that future?
Jeanine Bassett: We have placed a significant bet on mobile research. We now conduct well over half of our research on mobile devices. Context is so important. Mobile research allows us to ask questions where and when we want to. Many of our traditional surveys were recall based (remember the last time you were at the store…). We feel that we get so much closer to the truth when we can do “right time right place” research. It also provides the consumer with options in terms of how they communicate back to us. If they can’t put it into words, they can take a picture or a video and send it instead.
These in-turn become powerful storytellers as we bring the insights back to our decisions makers. We don’t have to tell them anything – the consumer shows them, allowing their unadulterated voice to come through. In addition to mobile, we will need to continue to find ways to harness this explosion of consumer data for both efficiency and unparalleled insight.
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