Byting Back: General Mills

Last year, CPG company General Mills spent most of its Internet marketing dollars (less than 2% of its total marketing budget) on banner ads on AOL real estate. This year, the company that brings you such brands as Betty Crocker Meals, Yoplait Yogurt, and Pillsbury executed a few tests outside its AOL partnership to learn how best to engage consumers with relevant and meaningful digital brand experiences.

"We viewed these tests as a way to see what works and what doesn't," says Brad Smith, manager of Internet advertising and branding for General Mills. "We learned that from a pure advertising point of view, rich media in a relevant environment is much more engaging for consumers, and creates significant increase in brand awareness and message association over traditional online tools such as banner ads."

As a result, earlier this year General Mills executed several online campaigns that focused on the strategic use of rich media. "The future's not in banners and buttons," says Smith.

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General Mills 'Pops' Into Movie Biz

The first Pop Secret campaign was designed to increase the buy rate of Pop Secret (ready-made popcorn) through a twofold communication strategy: associate the brand with the Academy Awards, and increase awareness of a Movie Cash promotion. To that end, Pop Secret ran skyscraper and banner ad units throughout various Academy Awards content sites, co-branded promotional units on E! Online, and built a "Pop Secret's Best Party" micro-site.

"Consumers are time-crunched and need convenient meal solutions," says Mark Redetzke, vice president of online media for Zentropy Partners.

The "Let's Pop Into a Movie" sweepstakes that followed focused on the same objectives, only more on "get together" occasions such as watching TV or renting new video/DVD releases. General Mills used some traditional ad units, but also Eyeblaster technology (which takes advantage of the flexibility of DHTML to serve "floating" ad units and/or "daughter window" content pages on websites) on real estate such as InStyle, Moviefone, People, The WB, and AOL Entertainment.

Response from the Eyeblaster technology "more than justified the premium charge," says Redetzke.

Paid media resulted in a click-through rate of 8.4% and more than 16,000 registrations. "Use of the Eyeblaster product really made sense strategically for General Mills," adds Redetzke. In a separate campaign for Wahoos!, General Mills used the Superstitial 300v (fully cached before it's shown) for the young salty-snack eaters.

"Rich media allows us to deliver more solution-oriented marketing for the time-starved mom, or design a health platform for boomers," says Smith of General Mills. "We recognize that consumers are in control of how they interact with our brands, and we want to deliver our messages within that context."

Smith also believes online advertising should focus on building "intimate knowledge" about the needs of consumers, and then address those needs with solutions. For example, early this year General Mills ran an online campaign with the Oxygen network whereby they created a health-living themed content area for the Harmony brand (cereal for women). "What customers are seeking is much more broad than anything our brand can offer on a website," Smith says. "We're all about leading with the needs of the consumer.

"Broad-reach online marketing is probably not the foundation of our strategy," Smith adds. "It's not an efficient way to spend our dollars. There are better ways to target our consumers and speak to them individually. We're more interested in exploring new advertising technologies. Not only is this a medium that can potentially move product, but it's a great medium for learning more about consumers and what they want. We hope to take that information and make our products and brands stronger."

School's Out for General Mills

"The company's learning period is rapidly coming to an end," says Redetzke of Zentropy Parners. "General Mills has developed its knowledge base over the past two years, and it now has a considerably more focused strategy that will begin to manifest itself in the coming fiscal year."

For openers, Smith says General Mills will continue to align itself with AOL by co-anchoring an integrated cross-platform back-to-school initiative, scheduled to run July through September, that will center around its meal division. The company also is designing online campaigns that may include more than one brand. "We want to deliver our brands in the larger context of our consumers' needs," says Smith. "This is a way for our brands to function more like solutions than products.”

And the company definitely will explore the use of more rich media campaigns elsewhere on the Internet. "The 30-second Internet spot hasn't materialized," says Smith. "But we'll be looking at ways to engage consumers in a much more active way than banner ads allow. The key for General Mills is to identify the best places to reach our consumers online and then go to where they live."

Of course, the company still hasn't figured out how online advertising impacts product sales. "We wish we could connect our consumers' online behavior to their offline purchase behavior, but we're not there yet," admits Smith. "We've only been able to measure impact on certain brand metrics awareness, message association, and purchase intent. We haven't been able to tie actual purchasing behavior to our online efforts. We believe it's there; we just haven't demonstrated it through data."

Then again, online advertising is not, repeat not, at the center of the company's marketing world. Company executives don't view the Internet as a media vehicle, but as a communication tool of its marketing channel, and as a way to engage its customers more deeply.

"The Internet has its role in our marketing mix," adds Smith, "but we're constantly having to define that role."

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