NASHVILLE: Marketers must not let the rise of big data discourage them from paying attention to their "intuition", a leading executive from General Mills has argued.

Speaking at The Market Research Event, Jeanine Bassett, vp/global consumer insights at food company General Mills, pointed to research conducted by the firm focusing on innovation – and specifically "brand creation" – by large and small companies from the 1970s through the 2000s.

"You can see that small companies are tearing it up," she said. "We thought, 'How can that be?' They don't have nearly the resources that we have? They don't have the big R&D budgets we have. They don't have access to the data that we have. So how are they doing it?"

Bassett's answer: "I think a data desert is actually their secret weapon, because, by default, they need to know that consumer really, really well." (For more, read Warc's exclusive report: Why General Mills believes intuition should support data)

She also offered a simple explanation for the industry-wide reliance on statistics: "It's really easy to do." But research, Bassett insisted, relies on much more than numbers, as marketers must "find more room for the consumer and making sure that you have the backdrop of a really strong program of consumer intimacy".

In many cases, she continued, "When you receive that data, you can do it in context and supplement it with your intuition."

General Mills has a reported annual marketing-research budget of $150m, which is used in support of a roster of brands that includes Green Giant, Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Yoplait and Pillsbury.

Such a scale, however, carries the risk of relying solely on quantitative findings. "Numbers, in isolation, are dangerous," Bassett said. And it has been decades since General Mills was in any kind of isolation.

"We are being gifted with brands with long legacies and equities—20, 40, 60, even 100 years old in our case with Gold Medal Flour," she added. "And it's been a long time since those brands were sold out of somebody's garage or hawked at state fairs where you get to talk to consumers in a one-on-one fashion."

As the company has matured, so the goal of "consumer intimacy" has become more difficult to achieve. It's a connection, Bassett explained, that doesn't happen "organically".

"Our stuff is sold off shelves and, more and more, over the internet. So the space between us and our consumers is getting really far apart," she asserted.

Data sourced from Warc