ANALYSIS <b>Corporate Case Study</b>: General Mills' product PR team steps up its efforts

With the help of Kim Olson, director of brand PR, the General Mills product PR team has taken on a more active role in the firm's marketing mix by working with other company teams.

With the help of Kim Olson, director of brand PR, the General Mills product PR team has taken on a more active role in the firm's marketing mix by working with other company teams.

General Mills' suburban corporate campus is so serene looking that when you drive up, it's hard to imagine how much work is going on inside. But these days, the Minneapolis-based company has its work cut out for it. The food giant must respond to the low-carb craze sweeping the country while simultaneously fighting off traditional rivals, such as a hard-charging Kellogg's, and moving forward from a 2001 merger with Pillsbury. In the midst of all these challenges, General Mills' product PR team has become a major part of its marketing mix. Since joining the company from Weber Shandwick three years ago, Kim Olson, director of brand PR, has expanded the internal PR team, taken on more outside agencies, instituted an internal PR measurement index, and turned to non-traditional means of getting General Mills' key messages to consumers in parts of the country that traditional marketing often ignores. More important, the PR people on Olson's team have become key players in General Mills' product-marketing teams, something that wasn't true half a decade ago. "These people sit on the marketing team," says General Mills CMO Mark Addicks, speaking of the product PR people. "Five years ago, they were called when the marketing ideas were already developed. Public relations is not just [a product] announcement role anymore." Indeed, Olson and her 13-person team are using PR in ways that push the boundaries of what PR means for a packaged-goods company. More than a year ago, they began testing a radio concept dubbed "Win/ Win" in which General Mills products were offered as prize giveaways for radio stations that would instruct on-air staff to mention those products in their daily banter. A DJ might talk about heart-care issues and Cheerios as a heart-healthy offering, for example, in exchange for the ability to give away Cheerios products to listeners. The program targets small and midsize markets throughout the country, locations that represent major opportunities to establish brand loyalty for General Mills. "Win/Win" provides more message control than traditional PR and adds third-party credibility, Olson contends. The "Win/Win" concept has proved so successful that General Mills has spun it off into a separate business. Its clients now include not only General Mills, but such major companies as Best Buy, 3M, and Clorox. On the TV side, General Mills turns out a weekly lifestyle VNR that it distributes every Thursday. Topics covered might include getting children to eat healthy snacks at Halloween or putting together meals to deal with weight issues after the Christmas holidays. Started two years ago, these VNRs now get an average of 18 million impressions weekly for General Mills products, Olson says. A focus on results Talking about results in quantifiable terms is important at General Mills, Addicks notes. It is an MBA-rich environment, so it's been important for PR to establish measurements that help it demonstrate its worth in quantifiable ways to other parts of the company. Olson can rattle off impressions earned faster than a Jeopardy contestant answering obscure trivia - 3 billion impressions for General Mills products in the fiscal year ending this June, compared with 2.3 billion in 2003 and 2.2 billion in 2002. But she needed something more substantial to show the worth of her team's efforts and so developed a new measurement metric called QQI - Quantity, Quality, Impact. Every product PR effort at General Mills gets a QQI rating. The number of impressions received can score a project up to 50 points. The quality of coverage, measured by such things as key message points being included in a story on a product, counts as 25 points in the QQI score. Impact also counts for 25 points and is measured by either sales, visits to a product website, entries in a contest if one is involved, or calls to a toll-free number for product information. Olson has an independent practitioner compile scores for each of her PR programs rather than ask PR firms working on the programs to do it because "we want a neutral third party to look at all our programs," she says. Olson has been expanding the mix of agencies that General Mills works with, picking smaller and midsize firms for projects in areas where they have expertise while working with majors, such as Fleishman-Hillard, Weber Shandwick, Ketchum, and MS&L, because they have the ability to handle larger, integrated efforts, she says. "I think she's brought a structure and a posture toward hiring agencies," says Tom Jollie, SVP with Padilla Speer Beardsley. "She's got us on our toes. Kim has high standards, and she challenges you to really do your best and deliver what's most important for the brand." Padilla works on such General Mills brands as Progresso soups, Gold Medal, and Hamburger Helper. "Kim has always been focused on measurement and results," says Sara Gavin, president of WS' Minneapolis office. "She's built a very high-talent team with a real drive toward strategy, execution, and results." Olson has built her team with a combination of longtime General Mills PR people, some former Pillsbury PR staffers, and a smattering of new people with agency experience. She rotates key staffers among brands to keep a fresh flow of ideas coming. Olson's been able to hold on to staffers, as well - only one person has left in the last year and a half - and that stability has aided PR development. Jollie notes that PR people stay at General Mills because they know they're close to the action when it comes to being key members of product-marketing teams. They've gotten those spots by contributing good ideas and by serving as monitors of important trends in society and the food business. Allegra Sinclair, senior PR manager for snacks, Yoplait, and corporate promotions, recalls that when she started working on snacks a few years ago, that area hadn't heard much from PR. She set out to change that, passing along articles on trends she thought would help the snacks-marketing team. "It was really becoming more of a partner rather than just their PR person," she says. The low-carb test All the groundwork Olson and her PR team have done to bring PR into General Mills' marketing mix is being tested by the low-carb craze. Some industry analysts have faulted General Mills for being slower to pick up on the low-carb craze than rivals like Unilever. General Mills CEO Steve Sanger admitted as much in March when announcing flat third-quarter earnings, up just 2% to $2.7 billion. "Our third-quarter results were disappointing," he said in a statement issued with the earnings. General Mills is playing low-carb catch-up, but its PR people say the strength of its established brands will distinguish the new carb-centric offerings. At the annual Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago earlier this month, General Mills unveiled such new low-carb offerings as Betty Crocker Carb Monitor Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Hamburger Helper Carb Monitor Cheeseburger Macaroni, and Progresso Carb Monitor soups. The firm plans to "use General Mills' heritage and trust as selling points," says Olson. The low-carb category has seen box loads of new offerings, but General Mills thinks it's not too late for it to succeed in the category. "It's crowded, but it's not crowded with products from companies like ours," says Olson. Addicks, who has been marketing General Mills products since he joined the company in 1988, thinks the low-carb craze is only the tip of a health iceberg about to hit the food business. Baby boomers will increasingly look for ways to stay healthy and active as they reach their senior years, Addicks predicts. "I think you're going to look at a range of challenges in a volume you have not seen," he says of food marketing to health-conscious consumers. Food marketing will need to be "tailored to be very responsive and smart in the way you go to market," he says. General Mills is hoping Olson and her PR team will help give it the smarts it needs to market new products that consumers will clamor for. PR contacts Director of brand PR Kim Olson Big G Cereals senior PR manager Greg Zimprich Baking/Meals/Betty Crocker senior PR manager Pam Becker Pillsbury senior PR manager Marlene Johnson Snack, Yoplait, corporate promotions senior PR manager Allegra Sinclair Agencies Alan Taylor Communications, Carmichael Lynch Spong, Colle & McVoy, Cone, Coyne Communications, Dome Communications, Fleishman-Hillard, Ketchum, MS&L, Padilla Speer Beardsley, Rogers & Cowan, Weber Shandwick

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