This interview is part of the Marketer’s Toolkit 2020. Download the summary report here.

In this exclusive interview for WARC’s annual Marketer’s Toolkit release, Ivan Pollard – Chief Marketing Officer at General Mills – speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill about how brands can participate in the sustainability conversation, the cutting edge of media investment, and the role of data in modern marketing.

Ivan Pollard, Chief Marketing Officer, General Mills

WARC: One of the major themes that emerges from WARC’s survey for the 2019 Marketer’s Toolkit is the move from brand purpose toward a brand activism. Which consumer trends – societal and cultural – are having the biggest impact on how you do your brand marketing at General Mills?

Pollard: Let’s take the question of environmental concern. Right now, that this something that big corporations need to lean into. You read the UN reports; you look at some of the Extinction Rebellion kind of thinking… we have a challenge coming for the way that humanity is using the planet and for the way the planet will allow humanity to continue to exist. General Mills believes that big corporations have a role to play in this, and a very big one.

From the perspective of food, I think government legislation is going to be slower moving than Big Food in [taking action on these issues]. For instance, General Mills has committed to do a million acres of regenerative food for agriculture farming – that means that we put more back into the soil than we take out, and we’re working with farmers who have proven that this is actually a better way of farming… That’s one example of how big food companies and General Mills, in particular, can react to environmental concern.

The other one is obviously packaging, and General Mills is very keen on driving forward any advance in packaging. Creating the packaging, getting the packaging used, and then recycling the packaging – those things are a corporate concern… it’s not something that helps to sell more; it’s something that is our corporate responsibility to do more.

WARC: Do you agree that it’s important for brands to take a stand? Is that different from having a wider purpose? A lot of the purpose debate is around social good as opposed to perhaps environmental impact. But this is a very practical thing for you, that [a food company] can change, with regards to your supply chain.

Pollard: With power comes responsibility… you have a responsibility to use that voice and use that power to do good. Yes, it’s social as well as environmental. It’s something we try to do and have always done.

Each of the brands also can have, and should have, a core purpose. What is it here for? What does it exist to do? Not all of those purposes are things that we would easily recognise as social good, but they should all have a point of view on why they’re here and what they’re adding to make people’s lives better. We’re a food company, unabashedly, and we make things that we think are good for people and people feel good about. Cheerios is one of our leading brands: its purpose is to create a bit more positive energy in the world. In North America, we’re doing a project to create a billion acts of good. That’s come from a partnership with Ellen DeGeneres where we are literally celebrating how good goes around. Equally, when things come up about social injustice, yes, I think corporations have a voice in that.

WARC: A lot of the people in WARC’s survey for the Marketer’s Toolkit have had concerns around, educating their teams around ad tech; or how do they ensure that their ad tech investment is effective around viewability. General Mills has a huge number of brands – what trade-offs are you making between, say, reach or context?

Pollard: Basically, we’re doing all the things that everybody else is doing and doing them very well. Anybody who knows what they’re doing knows how to manage [reach and context], it’s not a trade-off. That is a very different function for every different job for every different brand in each of the particular media we choose to use.

We’re applying the very old principles of media: What’s the job you want to do? What’s the change you want to make? To which people? How often and with what you want to talk to them? Where’s the best way of doing that at the lowest possible cost? We’re making sure our people know what the leading edge of ad tech and the new stuff is, but we’re not forgetting about the old stuff, which is equally good at reaching people. On brand-building versus performance, it’s not a ‘versus.’ It’s an ‘and.’

Anybody who didn’t work that out 15 years ago is probably not doing very well in the market today. The fundamental principles of leveraging communications and sales channels in order to drive your business forward remain the same. The technology that helps us get it done has massively improved our ability to target and massively undermined our ability to be woven into the fabric of society. So. we’re looking at how we balance the old-fashioned media with the new media; how we balance the kind of programmatic with the visible, and manage how all of the machinery we put in place to make sure that essentially what we say we’re going to do, what people say they’ve done on our behalf, what those things and how those things line up.

WARC: Long-term brand investment versus short-term ROI is a challenge that a lot of CMOs are grappling with. How do you balance building your brands over the long-term, especially with so many heritage brands, with driving that short-term performance?

Pollard: Balance is the right word here, because it’s not a ‘versus.’ It’s not a ‘which one do I pick?’ As it ever was, it’s still to do both. There’s no point having something for the long-term if you’re not selling anything in the short-term, and just selling things in the short-term if they undermine the ability to maintain a premium in the long-term. That is also not a business outcome you want. I think we’ve been through a decade of us all thinking that the most important thing is to close a sale and to measure the sale, and we’ve lost a little bit of focus. The drive to the short-term – especially in CPG – has probably lost a little bit of focus on the long-term value-building of the brands. [It’s about] putting things in people’s heads and creating experiences that they’ll remember so that you have to work a little less hard with your performance marketing in the future to get them to buy. Or that you can start to charge a premium and stand out from the market in order to take share from competition.

Long-term brand-building is something that we’re focusing on. Having said that, we’re also focusing on all of the possibilities now for performance marketing and how to prompt and trigger an action that would otherwise not happen…. [but] you can’t do that to the detriment of the long-term health of a brand. We’re looking at how we do both. I think the challenge of the external environment – the pressure that is put on, especially for publicly traded companies – has been about short-termism, but the community is starting to swing back to a belief in brands.

WARC:  Do you think it’s an important skill set now for senior marketers, particularly at the CMO level, to speak the language of the board, to be able to justify that continued marketing investment at a time when budgets generally are being shrunk?

Pollard: There are three things that a CMO in today’s age needs to do. The first and primary one of that is advocacy for the power of marketing at the senior leadership team and board level. Being able to articulate in business language the benefit of marketing, but also being able to tell the story and get them excited. You’re marketing for them too.

The second thing is how do you inspire your people around you? I don’t just mean the marketers – I mean the entire organisation. How do you inspire them with the marketing that you’re doing?

The third thing is how do you keep leading the capabilities – ad tech, etc. You have to stay on the edge of what is possible, but also understand the things from the past that were practical and bind those together.

WARC: E-commerce has emerged as something that is top of mind for a lot of the brand marketers we surveyed, in terms of navigating a multi-channel environment. I’d like to know a little bit around how you’re investing in e-commerce right now. How have you found that process?

Pollard: We think of e-commerce in three ways, which is, first of all, how do you market things like digital shops? How do you show up inside of Amazon so that people are more likely to buy your product than somebody else’s? The second is how do you market to digital shoppers. There’s this theory that we’re shopping all the time now. The third thing that is much more interesting, and where the definition of e-commerce starts to really spread its wings, is how do you make all of your marketing shoppable?

Those e-commerce channels get judged in the same way that we would judge any opportunity to tell a story to add a bit of value to a consumer’s life or change what they’re about to do. So that’s where you’ve got to balance it in context.

Understand your consumer first. Understand what they want. Understand how you can help and take the friction out of that.

WARC:  Lots of marketers have concerns about the growing influence of these platforms, but it sounds like you see it as an opportunity.

Pollard: It’s absolutely an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make a sale, it’s an opportunity to build a brand, and it is an opportunity to understand your consumer. We have to be as good at doing what Amazon does with our consumers as they are. So how do you start building with integrity. You have to approach data with the same level of integrity. Never cause harm. Never do anything wrong. Always be very clear about what you want the data for and why it’s going to add a value back to the consumer. With that data, then you could do things to understand your consumer and meet their needs better.

If you’re going to collect data, don’t use it for the wrong thing. We need some form of monitoring and legislation that accounts for that and stops people doing the wrong thing. So, yes, I see them all as an opportunity. They’re an opportunity not just for us to do good business, but for us to do good. The technology in the right hands needs to make the world a better place.

WARC: One of the constant themes that we’re seeing in our coverage at WARC is that CMOs believe that marketers need to be more data literate. Are you making changes to the way that you handle consumer data in 2020 in response to new regulations? How is your company navigating the tension between the desire for more personalised marketing and the desire for more consumer data protection?

Pollard: This is going to sound like I’m talking from a playbook, but it is a playbook that has been there for 150 years: this company believes in doing the right thing.

We’re not changing any of our policies because we’ve always had policies. Having said that, we’re going to keep making them better. We’re going to keep making sure we’re doing the right thing with that data. As you collect data, you have to be super clear about what you want and what you’re going to do with it. I don’t think it’s enough to do a ‘click here and accept our terms and conditions,’ knowing that 90% of people never read them. That’s not enough. We’ve got to be clear about what we’re asking for and what we’re going to do with it. That’s number one.

Number two: You’d better stick to your own rules for what you do with it. You’d better make sure that your rules are ahead of what legislation is going to ask of you. I think the legislation is needed, and I think we should stop people doing the wrong thing. I think the data is also useful because it helps us build things that will make people’s lives better. It will feed more people with good stuff that is perhaps more accessible than it’s ever been before, and it’s more affordable than it’s ever been before, and we’ll get it right more often with data.