Transforming a Legendary Brand with General Mills’ Brad Hiranaga

December 3, 2019

By Marni Gordon, SVP of committees and conferences, ANA


Ahead of his session at the 2020 ANA Brand Masters Conference, presented by Twitter, the ANA sat down with Brad Hiragana, chief brand officer at General Mills, to get the scoop on how he transformed a legendary brand.


Q. How is General Mills organized internally to foster creativity throughout its corporate culture?

Food is creative, so as a food company, we must be too. It all starts with our people. We look for fantastic humans who want to be a part of a creative engine, who are curious, and who inspire and support new ideas. We foster growth for our talented people with a matrixed structure that gives people flexibility in how they work. Cross-functional teams with different expertise come together to solve challenges in new ways together. And, they cultivate innovation in the collaborative process through diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives. Space and freedom to experiment and learn is one of our investments in them, and in return, we expect them to teach new concepts, processes, and ideas to the rest of the organization.

We are a company organized to energize talent, and build brands efficiently, effectively, reliably and remarkably. We make food, have remarkable brands, and have a community of super talented people who deeply care about what they do. The result is one of the best companies to work for in the world.


Q. How has General Mills worked with influencers to engage with consumers and drive results?

Influencers are brought on at the inception of an idea. As a partner in the planning, we build and shape the idea together. To do that, we must make sure we're developing together from a shared purpose. And that we're providing something unique and valuable to people, and that it's authentic to both partner's audiences. In doing this, the results can be amazing.

One perfect example is our partnership with the Ellen DeGeneres show and our Cheerios brand. It was a natural fit. Ellen stands for kindness, a sentiment she shares at the end of every show, saying, "be kind to one another." Cheerios stands for goodness, and a drive to make "good go round." Those shared interests led to the creation of "One Million Acts of Good" in our first year together, and we're now entering our third year of partnership because it's such an authentic fit. The results have been incredible. We surpassed one million acts of good, and are now working toward achieving one billion. This has also led to an increase in category share for Cheerios and created many new ways to grow.

Our brands are unique with individual characteristics, and so are our partnerships. Lovers of Totino's love gaming, as well as a remarkable experience. Fans of esports know that the 100 Thieves esports teams are top competitors in gaming. So we partnered with 100 Thieves founder Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag, who is also former Call of Duty world champion and YouTube star, to bring Totino's purpose of “making the everyday more epic” to life. Together we created immersive experiences for the brands' mutual fans and gave them the epic entertaining experiences that they crave.

Our partnership with KITH is another excellent example. KITH is passionate about the Cinnamon Toast Crunch (CTC) brand, and their fans share the love. Together, we created CTC branded streetwear that KITH debuted at a fashion show, and it sold out in minutes. Additionally, Kith features CTC as a topping to ice cream in their wildly popular KITH shops.

Partnerships with influencers bring us innovation and experiences for people that we would not be able to do on our own. Partnerships like these result in increased brand relevancy and sales for our brands, but they also result in fostering creativity and inspiring innovation. There's huge value in that for our consumers and us.


Q. What has been your main challenge in leading transformation for your 150 year old company?

Our greatest challenge in transforming is two things: our size and heritage.

We are a 150-year-old company with over 100 brands. This includes remarkable and varied brands like Lucky Charms, Pillsbury, Cheerios, Nature Valley, and Haagen Dazs, to name a few. Over our history, General Mills has been predictable, dependable, safe, and consistent, very important attributes for a company that sells food to so many people. And, our approach was a "one size fits all" model — a success for decades, but now a unique challenge given all of the changes in the food industry over the last decade.

Our heritage is to help feed the world by making food people love, and we must remain safe and reliable. But, now we need to do it in a fast, unpredictable world. Our scale and size, which had been such a key driver to our growth, is now slowing us down.

To transform, it was time to cut the bullshit and get intellectually honest and real.

We're now operating in a growth mindset, and focusing on how we can transform to solve real, human problems in new ways. This is not lofty, blue sky, complex business book transformation, instead it’s a practical, simple, human way to help our company.

Starting with this philosophy has gotten us back on track to growth. Cutting the bullshit is fun to say and might sound easy, but it's not. It's tough to overcome corporate muscle memory when you've been around so long.

Our answer is an "and mindset" that promotes curiosity, courage, and a willingness to experiment and learn. Then, as mentioned above, we've created "creative safe havens" for people to experiment and learn and teach each other. When we're all invested in the same mindset, the momentum builds on itself and continues to spark a more profound interest in adopting its principals.

We might have changed our mindset, but we never forget our past. By acknowledging and honoring traditions that helped us be successful for 150 years, we can also create the future for our next 150.


Q. How does General Mills leverage data to drive decision-making for your marketing plans?

We are smarter about what our consumers want when we're focusing on using data and analytics to solve consumer-driven problems. The insights inspire us to build new capabilities, innovate more nimbly, and bring new offerings to the market faster.

We're also working with data in news ways. We're shifting our focus from being reactive and only using historical data to having more forward-looking, predictive insights about what will happen in the future. Then we can take prescriptive actions to solve business problems. We're also becoming more efficient across our value chain. And, we're accelerating marketing innovation.

Take the example of a promotional event like 'Back to School.' When helping our retail partners determine how much product to order, we might use data and analytics to predict and show them additional information. We also share what the competition is doing in the same time period (cross retailing), how weather impacts purchasing, and even how much consumers already have in their pantry. Instead of ordering too much or too little product, retail partners would have a better pulse on the right amount of product to meet consumer demand. That's leading to great business results for them and us.


Q. Which General Mills product is your personal favorite and why?

That’s easy. Franken Berry. I love the brand itself, the cereal is a treat to eat, and of course, Halloween is my favorite holiday. Also, what other brand has a pink Frankenstein as its primary brand asset? It’s creativity expressed through food.

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