General Mills' online sales are soaring as people shop from home. Its brand chief lays out the steps it's taking to build on the growth.

  • The growth of e-commerce has fundamentally transformed General Mills' marketing approach, said its North America chief brand officer Brad Hiranaga.
  • General Mills is focusing on solutions rather than selling products and emphasizing content on its brand sites like Betty Crocker.
  • General Mills has also increased ad spending on e-commerce platforms in a shift away from traditional media.
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As people shop more online during the pandemic, many established brands and retailers have had to scramble to stay relevant or risk being left behind digital startups and other competitors.

For General Mills, this shift has meant turning its websites into content and commerce hubs, moving ad spending to e-commerce platforms, and selling solutions rather than individual products, its North America chief brand officer Brad Hiranaga said.

"It's e-commerce that's [changed] how we're thinking about marketing now," Hiranaga told Business Insider. "It's no longer, 'I'm going to get tortillas over here, and some beef and cheese over there.' Brands that are smart are providing that whole solution for taco night with one click of a button.

"A campaign which you're going to remember me by when you go into a store was great 15 years ago," he said. "Now, you're always one click away from purchase, and you have seconds to make something valuable and easy to put into a basket. And that's a mindset shift that we've had to have."

Like other brands including Petco and Hershey, General Mills is shifting ad dollars from big-reach consumer media channels like TV and shopper-marketing to programmatic, retail and e-commerce channels like Walmart and Kroger, Hiranaga said. The company said online sales for General Mills' brands doubled to 8% from 4% during the pandemic, and Hiranaga said they're expected to surpass 10% this year.

Read more: Chipotle, Kohl's, Peloton and other top marketers reveal how they're changing their ad strategies as the pandemic upends the holiday season

It's also emphasizing content on sites for brands including Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, using the consumer data and trends to then inform its marketing and product development. This has been useful as the company keeps pace with changing consumer tastes during the pandemic.

When use of appliances like air fryers and grills rose in recent months, the sites responded with content teaching people how to make crescent rolls and pizza using them, for example, said Jeanine Basset, General Mills' VP of consumer and market intelligence.

"There's rich insights to be found just in mining that data," Basset said. "During the pandemic, traffic on is up 45%,  and in the 18-24 year-old age, range the traffic is up 90%. That tells us that they're looking for solutions faster than others are."

General Mills is also making its sites more experience-driven. There's a birthday-themed content hub by Betty Crocker and an upcoming deal with Barbie where people can buy not just the makings for cakes but also toys.

"When we sell something to a consumer, it's not just the cake mix or the frosting, it's all those things," Hiranaga said.

The company is trying to stay culturally relevant, too, using new platforms like TikTok and channels like e-sports; and preparing for a world where everything is shoppable by experimenting on channels like Instagram and Pinterest.

"I want to compare us to technology companies who were born out of the digital space because their bar on experiences and solutions is way higher than ours," Hiranaga said. "It means our ads need to be better; it means our content needs to be more searchable; and it means our experiences need to be more valuable for people."

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