5 Things I Know About Marketing – General Mills CMO Mark Addicks

Mark Addicks is Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at General Mills, which he joined in 1988. He will speak at MSI’s November Trustees Meeting on “Designing the Marketing Organization for Now and the Future.” In September, he talked with Executive Director Kevin Lane Keller; below is an edited version of their discussion.

1. Leverage the full richness of marketing.

Marketing does not equal advertising. Marketing is about identifying, nurturing, and developing markets for growth. Today, we can see markets more clearly and understand them more deeply; we can get a sense of the motivations driving that market. Once you define and characterize the market, you want to develop something different, superior, and truly value added to that market.

This is a very basic principle, but too often the conversations around marketing are about advertising or touchpoints of communication. But our starting point isn’t communication. It’s defining and understanding that market and making sure that you’re delivering something truly different and superior.

As you do that, it is important to focus on what you deliver best and avoid the “Texas wedding.” If you’ve ever been to a stereotypical Texas wedding, there’s usually like 14 groomsmen and bridesmaids, and they’re all in different colors. Too often, marketing communication is a Texas wedding, from the package to the digital ad, each with eight different messages trying to convey all the different features that might help you sell the product.

You have to know at the very front end, what is the brand’s purpose, why does it exist, what job is it meant to do, and what is the singular thing that your brand delivers that is different and superior? 

2. Everything old is new again.

It’s remarkable how many times the past is a very rich area to mine for successful new ideas. This can be especially powerful for legacy brands that may be declining. Why did this brand break through and stick with consumers? How did they engage people? What visual images were used? You may need to contemporize it, but it’s shocking how evergreen some of the original “reason for being” thinking is for a brand.

There are so many good marketing strategies and tactics that people can adapt, update, and reuse. A good example is our Yoplait Greek yogurt. Given all the products now available in that category, not a lot of consumers were saying the world needs another Greek yogurt. So we took inspiration from the “Pepsi Challenge.” We did a Yoplait Greek taste-off. We made it contemporary, but it’s essentially the Pepsi Challenge in spirit. We’ve had tremendous success with that.

I often send people back to the brand archives to dig around and mine insights. Marketers should be social and cultural anthropologists. You’re not a good marketer if you’re not curious.

3. Tap into brand champions.

In the CPG world and more broadly, you see some general confusion about who a brand is for. Who are the brand champions? Whose eyes and heart and head is the brand responding to? This insight should give you the tone, the feel, the language for the brand. It should also give you some imperatives about how you tell the brand story.

I learned this first on Cheerios. Cheerios had a long history, but we didn’t have a point of view on who the brand was really for. It was positioned very functionally on “heart health” with little emotional appeal. So we spent a lot of time and discovered the brand champions and how, when, where, and why they connected to the brand. Our learning was centered on the insight that “no matter how old you are, you will always be my baby.” Cheerios is about nurturing, starting with the incredible joy of having this wonderful first child who learns to eat with Cheerios.

We went to five cities and had people tell us their Cheerios stories. “I got a divorce.” “I started college.” “I moved jobs.” “I lived by myself and I didn’t know anybody in L.A.” And they always said, “I’d go out and buy Cheerios.” Cheerios was always home base.

We took our very targeted heart health advertising, and we developed a new ad with a middle-aged couple. He says to her, “I had a check-up today and here’s what the doctor told me.” There was a moment of nurturing back and forth, and the response went off the charts.

When we ran an ad with a grandmother feeding her grandchild and using Cheerios to explain where everybody lived, our 50+ consumption went through the roof. When we ask, “Why are you buying more Cheerios?” people might say, “Because it’s heart healthy.” Yeah, but not completely. That ad reminded them that it was heart healthy but also reminded them how much they loved it.

4. You’ve got to have a great product first.

Start with the stuff that matters: the product and the larger experience around that product. That is where you should be focusing the majority of your time. And just as people change, the stuff that matters to them will change and evolve. So you have to always strive to be better.

When I look at a lot of CPG marketing, I don’t see that discipline. You can have great social media, but if you’re not focused on the product first, your brand is not going to sustain or thrive in the marketplace. We are learning this over and over.

One good way to think about your product experiences and what matters is by understanding the rhythm of consumers’ lives and how your brand can fit in.

Take food. There’s a rhythm to the American family week. The number one food-shopping day is Sunday and families are in planning mode. They follow the plan through Monday night. On Tuesday, they start to adjust the plan. By Wednesday, the plan often has completely fallen apart. That’s why you see out-of-home sales rise versus in-home consumption of food. Lots of pizza nights.

Thursday night, somewhere around 4:30 or 5:00, they go into aspirational “weekend” mode. Families will make tacos with eight moving pieces. They make these participatory meals on Thursday because they’re already thinking about barbecuing and grilling, right? It’s all about the weekend.

So would you run the same message on Tuesday that you ran on Thursday? No, that’s not how they live life. With all the data we have, there’s really no excuse now for not knowing those rhythms. 

5. The trend is your friend.

I borrowed this from one of my colleagues and I say it all the time. Too often marketers ignore trends. Most of the CPG world is spending about 4% on Hispanic consumers, when they make up 16% to 20% of the marketplace, and growing. If you’re looking for growth, look where the core trends are and then prioritize them and ask, “Do any of these trends line up with the marketplaces we define?”

Consulting firms have told CPG firms that nobody wants to be on a diet anymore because they’re sick of being at war with food. But there are 85 million Americans over the age of 50 who are very worried about specific health states. They’re very much on trend. Follow that trend!

There are always going to be “command performances” – being in a wedding, the first day out on the beach, a high school reunion. Consumers might want a better diet, but they’re not sick of diets. They’re just sick of the way we present diets. They might want marketers to approach them in a different way. 

Five Things I Know About Marketing Series

Related links

Board of Trustees Meeting: Building a World Class Marketing Organization
Nov 13 – Nov 14, 2014, The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, IL


You must be logged in to leave comments. Please login.



Employees of MSI Member Companies enjoy the benefits of complete online access to content, member conferences and networking with the MSI community.



Qualified academics benefit from a relationship with MSI through access to, conferences and research opportunities.



The public is invited to enjoy partial access to content, a free e-newsletter, selected reports and more.




Learn more about becoming a member of the institute

Read More

Stay Informed

The MSI Mailing List

Subscribe to our email list to stay informed about upcoming events, news, etc.

Social Media