At General Mills, understanding consumers, product innovation and connective marketing have been in the forefront of the company’s strategy since its founding. But as technology flourishes and real-time information proliferates, bringing innovative and inventive products to market quickly is more challenging than ever.
Four years ago, General Mills created an open innovation strategy to bring together the brightest minds and best ideas, internally and externally. Two years ago, the program evolved into a revolutionary initiative: General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN).
It’s a tricky and audacious effort that involves tearing down some of the walls and the proprietary thinking rampant in the food industry. In return for a little honesty and even humility, General Mills product developers have people coming to them with ideas for new products.
G-WIN is an effort to get the word out and find new partners for General Mills -- whether they be entrepreneurs, inventors, universities or suppliers -- and to incorporate new technologies that complement its existing brands and businesses.
“There are two key elements to our program,” explains Jeff Bellairs, director of G-WIN, who has been with General Mills for 13 years. “One is our catalyst team or X-squad [X for external], a small, centralized group focusing on open innovation, which brings in the tools for best practices and acts as a catalyst to inspire our divisional resources.
“When we originally created the program, we were focused on external innovation. Since then, we’ve realized that the important thing is connection – or what we call connected innovation. Recently, we created innovation entrepreneurs. Using resources based within the division, yet totally dedicated to open innovation, and building effective partnerships from outside can supply us with technology, products or some unique capability.”
G-WIN is not wholly about bringing outsiders’ ideas to market. Open innovation, according to Bellairs, starts with connecting more effectively with colleagues internally.
“One great example is bringing our Progresso Light soup to market,” he says. “We brought 17 people from different divisions together to focus on weight management and technologies to come up with some great new platforms.”
One great insight came from the Yoplait business unit: that the Yoplait Light products were leading the category in growth. “When that insight was translated to the Meals Division, they came up with the idea of Progresso Light,” Bellairs says.
The internal work was augmented with work from a supplier that gave General Mills the technology to make a great-tasting light soup. Then, working through the external partner development group, General Mills negotiated a deal with Weight Watchers to put the 0 point endorsement for each serving on the product.
Another point is connecting more effectively with suppliers “For years, we kept our suppliers at arm’s length guessing what we were looking for. Now we are more explicit,” says Bellairs.
“After we adopted a more collaborative approach, one of our suppliers came back with a frozen smoothie kit prototype. It became the impetus for the launch of Yoplait Smoothie kits, launched in club stores last fall, where they became a tremendous success.” The Yoplait Smoothie kits will be launching nationally in U.S. retail stores this fall.
Another supplier came up with Pillsbury Savorings. “Our supplier had a unique technology, and we were able to combine our brand and marketing expertise to create a blockbuster success in the marketplace,” says Bellairs. “We continue to expand the Savorings line of products with the launch of Pillsbury Savorings Bread Bowl Bites. This is a platform we can build off of, and both General Mills and our partner are benefiting.”
As for the most important attributes in new products, Bellairs says it starts with consumers and their unmet needs. “We are getting away from looking at the market as a big homogenous mix,” he says. “Rather we are looking at different segments and niches. We see benefits across taste, health and convenience.
“For many of our consumers, it’s all about balance. Certainly they want more healthful products, but there are those times when they want a bowl of Haagen-Dazs ice cream or chocolate devil’s food cake for a special occasion, so we are committed to innovating across those three broad platforms.”
Each division at General Mills partners with the G-WIN group, and success stories abound throughout the organization. To understand how R&D can take advantage of open innovation, we asked three R&D team leaders to discuss how the process has led to successful results for their groups.
Yoplait Smoothie was launched in club stores first, and will launch in the retail market nationally this fall. “It addresses a need: Consumers love smoothies but don’t want to take the time and effort to make them at home,” says Arun Bansal, senior R&D manager within the Meals Division, who has been with General Mills for seven years.