It’s no secret: consumers’ eating habits and priorities are changing, and so are the foods and brands they buy. That has created a multitude of variables to the plates of Big Food companies, which are now constantly fending off new competitors. Golden Valley-based General Mills, one the nation’s largest food makers, recognized this power shift and determined the company would need to be more responsive and nimble by adapting its products more quickly. The “Consumer First” mantra now adorns banners and letterhead. More than a phrase, it’s General Mills’ survival strategy for sales. But in order to respond, the company needs to understand the consumer. And it’s Jeanine Bassett’s job as vice president of global consumer insights to get to know them. Excerpts of a recent interview:

Q: How does this new emphasis on the “Consumer First” motto impact your team’s work?

A: Our function has always been ‘consumer first,’ I think the rest of the organization is finally catching up. They’ve started getting closer to the consumers. [Other departments] just needed permission from the organization to create space to do that and to push back on ideas on behalf of the consumer. The vision for our function is to be the driving force behind consumer-led decisionmaking. We aren’t the ones to decide what to launch, but our job is to build confidence.

We just modified our competencies, what people are going to be measured on. And a new one this year is putting consumers first.

Q: How do you connect with consumers?

A: If you want to speak to consumers in a new way, you need to lead with the job to be done. For instance, on Cheerios. No one would have thought of Cheerios as a gluten-free solution. In fact, they would have rejected it thinking, “That’s a carb-laden thing in that carb-laden aisle,” and they don’t talk about it. So we don’t lead with the brand and our language needs to speak to the problem, or the pain point, in their lives.

It is hard sometimes to figure out what those pain points are because consumers can’t always articulate their problems very well. So, we need to get there through observations, maybe through diary studies and then we need to read the tea leaves and pull the insights out because they aren’t going to just hand it to us.


Q: General Mills has spent more time in consumers homes recently, including some visits by Ken Powell, the CEO. How do these help the company glean insights?

A: We actually look for dissonance between what they say and what they do. For instance, they’ll say, “My kids eat healthy.” We are there, when they come home from school through the back door. And when we are talking to mom, we will see the kids in the background grabbing stuff that consumers would generally not consider healthy — at least not in the way she is talking about it. That’s dissonance and that’s where insights happen. Why is she saying that but doing the other thing. There’s a pleasing component.

We love to be in the presence of our consumer, but you have to recognize their bias. People are far more aspirational than how they actually live their lives, particularly when it comes to health. That’s where you have to be the most vigilant. They are not lying. It just reflects the values they are trying to, and hope to, live.


Q: The company has also started doing “lemonade stands” where you test products with consumers much earlier in the development phase. This shortens the timeline and also saves General Mills from wasting its time on an idea that will flop. Can you explain the thinking behind this?

A: It was a frame-breaker for us for how we get ideas in front of consumers. It used to be much more formal, much more expensive. It’s meant to convey the notion that we aren’t done yet. You literally put a card table together, maybe the brand is just taped on. Everything about it says to consumers, “We want you to help create the brand with us.” It’s not all set in stone. So we pitch what it is supposed to do and we look for signals from them. You almost never do one round. You are coming back with everything you learned the first time and you end up knocking out all kinds of insights, much more quickly.


Q: What is one trend that is particularly challenging for General Mills?

A: The tricky one is how consumers more and more want to live out their life values through their food. A tomato is no longer just a tomato. In someone’s house, they grew a tomato. At another house, it was an organic tomato. Someone else bought it for 39 cents because they just don’t care. Another bought a Bushel Boy tomato because it was local.

In the end, there’s no difference in the functionality or in the taste. But in their mind it is very important to know how that tomato got to there to the table. I think that’s really challenging because I just outlined four different scenarios, so which area do we want to play in? People want to live out their values but they come at it from all different angles. Food used to not be such a platform for saying who you are. It used to be cars and watches. Now I can say who I am through a tomato.