Road to Brandweek: General Mills’ Brad Hiranaga Says Consumers Have Higher Expectations of Brands Now

CPG businesses have had a moment in the spotlight during the pandemic

Brad Hiranaga
Brad Hiranaga will speak at Adweek's Brandweek Masters Live event. Adweek
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key insight:

It’s a good time to be in the CPG business. As stay-at-home orders forced people inside (and out of restaurants), grocery stores became one of the few storefronts that remained open for business. And as unprecedented challenges swept the nation, consumers began to gravitate toward the brands they knew and loved.

Brad Hiranaga, chief brand officer, North America for General Mills, who is speaking at Adweek’s Brandweek Masters Live event, which will be held from Sept. 14-18 this year, saw those changes firsthand. Since the onset of the pandemic, the company has not only evolved its own marketing and invested in ecommerce, but it has also worked with organization including Feeding America to get its products into the hands of people who need it.

Ahead of the event, Adweek sat down—virtually—with Hiranaga to discuss this moment in marketing and the CPG landscape.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Adweek: This year has brought unprecedented challenges for marketers. What’s been the hardest lift for you, and how are you getting through it?
Brad Hiranaga: Covid-19 has accelerated the need for marketers to have deeper empathy for the consumer, understand the problems that they’re facing and lean in to create solutions to help.

One of the most significant changes we’re seeing is how people buy food. Consumer demand for buying groceries online is growing. As far as evolving consumer needs, ecommerce plays a large part in making things easier by providing access to our brands and demonstrating a commitment to safety. As social distancing persists, we suspect this demand to sustain and new consumer adoption to grow.

What lessons do you think the marketing and advertising industry will come away from this time with? What changes has the pandemic accelerated?
The biggest lesson is that people have higher expectations of how brands need to show up in their lives—solving real, human problems and offering joy-filled solutions. 

Brands need to show up for people in a very authentic way. There’s a lot of talk about authenticity, but what the pandemic brought into focus for people was a desire to bring brands into their lives that add value and show a human interest in their everyday. What challenges are they facing? What experiences do they want to have with their friends and family? And, how can a brand play a role that helps make that happen? The industry needed to bring more empathy and understanding of what people are going through and what they need.

Additionally, given the ongoing pandemic and widespread racial injustice, there is a need for brands to move beyond talking to doing; taking a stand and taking action that is true to their brand purpose. People expect more from brands, and they should because brands have an essential role in communities and culture. In these moments, brands are defined by how they show up. I hope that what we’ve learned is that this is how brands should always show up.

What about your sector in particular? What changes have come, and how has that impacted your marketing?
The reason we exist is to make food the world loves. Today’s circumstances require us to make food the world loves and needs. And, there is increased demand for food products to feed those facing hunger. Through a program called “manufacture to donate,” we quickly enabled our plants to make food, box it up and send directly to Feeding America, producing $5 million worth of products. That’s in addition to $5 million in foundation grants to support food access in our key global markets and support our manufacturing communities worldwide.

The crisis also accelerated the focus of trying to solve consumer problems in a way that allows us to create solutions and give people value during that exchange with them, whether through a product they buy, through content that they watch, or through an experience they have with one of the brands. We made immediate shifts to our content to remain relevant. This required understanding consumers’ immediate needs, ensuring they have access to food and providing solutions—such as ideas on how to stretch their pantries when preparing food at home far more often than they’re used to.

What have been the wins for the marketing industry this year? What excites you about the next 12 months?
The current crisis has created so many new opportunities to add value for our consumers, and as a company, we have been able to do good for the greater good now more than ever. This is an opportunity for marketers to relook at the value of their brands and the role that marketers play in their organizations. We sometimes forget that the experiences, solutions and messages that we’re putting out into the world are reaching back to our employees and inspire them as well. In this time of crisis, many brands have been stepping up to support causes, help frontline workers and stand up for equality. It is both humbling and massively inspiring that we can impact our organizations, our partners and society.

If the next 12 months follow this trajectory and marketers take this role to heart, then marketing will never be as important to shape the future for this company. And I think we’ll see some of the best marketing, brand building and advertising that has ever been before.

Connecting with consumers is more important than ever. How are you doing that in the current climate?
Our marketing has become very action-led. We’re focused on our consumers’ current challenges and creating relevant solutions for them, and as a result, our best marketing is happening right now. As I mentioned, we start with understanding what everyday problems people face and work on solutions to make it easier, create moments or deliver joy.

At the start of the pandemic, many people didn’t know how to cook. That’s a problem we could solve. One of our most iconic brands, Betty Crocker, did a fantastic job of making content more flexible by creating recipes catered to individual cooking experience levels. The brand immediately pivoted to acknowledge that the needs of their consumers were shifting drastically and made sure the recipes and ideas for meals they were delivering were simple and affordable. This included showcasing simple ways to use Betty baking products already in the pantry, tips, tricks and hacks to help navigate the kitchen more frequently, and a series showing moms and dads ideas for baking and cooking with their kids. 

What’s one thing you wish more consumers knew about your brand?
While we exist to make food the world loves, we know we can make an impact on the world by being a force for good. We’re accelerating efforts to end hunger, advance regenerative agriculture and support farmers and their communities, and support teachers, schools and students through our Box Tops for Education program. We also believe systemic racism isn’t something that can be solved simply or alone—it requires everyone’s participation—so we are committed to being a part of the solution. 

With our size and resources, we know we can make a positive impact, and this matters more now than ever. 

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.