2009 R&D Team Winner: General Mills Gets Innovative with R&D Strategies

General Mills takes the cake (and the yogurt) in the $501 million in sales and greater cateogry for our 2009 Food Processing R&D Teams of the Year.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Yoplait Smoothie is a blend of frozen fruit and yogurt. Consumers add a cup of milk, blend it for one to one and a half minutes and they have two cups of smoothies. “We started with Triple Berry, and will have Strawberry Banana and Strawberry Pineapple Mango flavors with the launch this fall,” he says. “They are very convenient, an excellent source of antioxidants, contain yogurt and conveniently replicate smoothies you’d get at venues like Jamba Juice.”

Working on this new product line was one scientist, one technician and Bansal, who managed the project. “Using capital structure we already had at General Mills, as well as our partner who makes the sauce chips for our frozen vegetables, we asked, ‘What if we use fruit?’ All the technical expertise was there,” says Bansal.

“We worked with our partner, who has account representatives right here in Minneapolis. Since the technical folks are at their technical facility, we held offsite meetings and held weekly conference calls to outline the project and work through the all details and requirements. Samples went back and forth to determine flavor optimization. We stay in close touch.”

Once the idea got started and gained traction, it only took a few months to get the product to market. “Rather than technical development, the big step in timing was getting the buyer commitment from club stores,” he explains. “Once they got on board, the product took off like wildfire, so we decided it could go to the retail market.

“Quick to market is very important,” he says decisively. “When we tested the product with consumers, it scored off the chart. They love the taste and the convenience and the fact that our Yoplait yogurt contains live and active cultures, which contribute to good health. We look forward to expanding options with other health-oriented flavors.”

As part of the development process at General Mills, employees are asked for feedback. “We have employee panels,” says Bansal. “We give them samples; they take the product home to their families and give us their opinions. And we have a company store, where employees can purchase our new products.”

The other part of the equation is the risk, according to Bansal. “No new capital investment was required, so it gave us the opportunity to experiment with this new idea. We went to club stores, because it is an excellent channel to test new products. Those factors enabled the national launch.”

Pillsbury Savorings and Bread Bowl Bites

“We had been working on appetizers here at Pillsbury and identified a product we produce in our Scotland plant and wanted to bring it to the U.S.,” says Chris Pike, R&D director of new products for Pillsbury and a General Mills employee for 25 years. The products was a flaky pastry bite. “But it wasn’t feasible to produce in Scotland and import to the states. We knew we had a winner, but didn’t have a way to easily reproduce the product within our manufacturing plant.”

Pike spoke to Mike Helser, a member of the G-WIN team, and he identified a Toronto contract manufacturer, Morrison Lamothe Inc., that appeared to have the capabilities to manufacture the product. “We talked with them and were really impressed by their capabilities and values, which are very similar to ours at General Mills,” says Pike enthusiastically. “We agreed to form a partnership to bring this appetizer idea to fruition.”

General Mills had some ideas on flavors, and parceled off a product they had developed for a U.S. retailer that was similar to what we wanted to introduce. Since Morrison Lamothe didn’t want to be in the branded business, but had the technical know-how, systems and capacity to make the product, even if it went national. Pillsbury had a great product concept, a great fit with the Pillsbury brand and the expertise to market, advertise and connect with consumers.

Pike committed three of his people to developing new ingredients for the fillings, fine-tuning the process and identifying needed new equipment. “We knew our customers wanted more chunks of meat in the filling. We brought some technologies to [Morrison Lamothe] and made changes in the product, ending up with three fantastic varieties we are very proud of and that I am happy to serve my family and friends.”

Pillsbury Savorings launched in the summer of 2008 in Cheese and Spinach, Mozzarella Pepperoni and Buffalo Style Chicken.

“It was a marriage of synergistic capabilities and strength,” says Pike. “For each of us, it would have been tough to go it alone. Morrison Lamothe allowed us to launch the product in less than a year, a year earlier than we expected, which for us was fantastic.

“We’ve been extremely successful with this launch in our first year, and it’s driven growth in the appetizer category,” says Pike. “We’ve been so pleased we just started shipping two new varieties called Bread Bowl Bites, also developed in a partnership fashion, also using this open innovation model to get to market quickly and leverage our partner’s strengths and ours.”

Bread Bowl Bites are mini bread bowls with dip inside and topped with cheese and bread crumbs. They come in two varieties – Artichoke and Spinach and Cream Cheese and Jalapeno. “They are hand held, one to two bites, a great combination of bread and savory in a more convenient form. They are ready made, just pop them in the oven for 15-16 minutes, and share. Or you can add a salad and have a great convenient dinner.
“We worked toward developing a product that had broad usage – not just as an appetizer, but also on those occasions when you are hungry for dinner but you don’t want to eat too much. You can relax, reconnect with your family and enjoy dinner without the work.”

Pike was delighted to discuss his experience with open innovation. “General Mills is a large company, but because our values are so broadly shared, I can walk into any plant and work on a project,” he explains. “Even if I haven’t met the team members before, we are an instant team. We share common goals, are here to get the job done and deliver to our consumers and shareholders.”

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