How General Mills Uses ‘Breakup Letters’ to Better Understand Consumers

By Kaitlin Milliken |  February 18, 2020

The future of food may call to mind plant-based burgers and organic snacks. But when Jodi Benson of General Mills looks to the future of the industry, she focuses on two elements: the who and the how.

“The ‘who’ is more stable. When we look at the future, if we understand who we will be serving, I think we can create better innovations for the future,” Benson says. “Lots of things will change that we can’t predict, but I always think of demographics as being our destiny.”

Benson also seeks to understand how customers will get their food: “Are they getting it through a service? Are they getting it delivered? Are they ordering on e-commerce? That digitization of the service part of the equation is the other [‘how’] piece.”

Benson is the consumer goods company’s Chief Innovation, Technology, and Quality Officer. In this role, she focuses on the commercialization of new food technology and products.

Over the last five years, Benson worked with a team to develop Oui, a French-style yogurt offering from Yoplait. Instead of coming in a plastic container, Oui yogurt is set in its own glass pot. During her session at InnoLead’s 2019 Impact event, Benson discussed how her team brought the new product to life — including how they asked consumers to write “breakup letters” to explain why they’d abandoned Yoplait. (The 2020 Impact gathering happens in Boston, Oct 19-21, 2020.)

Oui: Using ‘Breakup Letters’ and Multiple Iterations to Win Big 

[Our] big ambition was, “Can we create a $50 million business in the first year in a totally new space?” … $50 million [is] very big for us in the food industry. In the food industry, less than 10 percent of the innovations are above $15 million. So to go after a $50 million idea was huge…

[We] asked a bunch of consumers to write a breakup letter. If they had gone over to Chobani, what was that about? This letter that [one] consumer wrote to us was, “Hey, I gotta come clean. I’ve been having an ongoing affair with Chobani. I’d love to choose only you but something is missing. Chobani fills a void that you don’t. But the good news is, our relationship can be repaired.”

So the answer of what we did wrong was basically… “You stopped really dressing up for me. There’s no wow. It’s just the same thing all the time. And it’s a bit for everybody. … How can you keep it fresh, be more spontaneous?” … That’s a summary of one person’s letter, but that was the tone of many of the letters.

The team took that insight to say, “You know, we’ve been thinking about Yoplait as being for everybody, all the family. What if we thought about creating a category that was based on the current consumer food values? Around simple and pleasure? … [Creating a] ‘for me’ kind of moment for women?” That really anchored the team’s thoughts. They created a set of design principles. And out of that, ultimately [they] created the product that we now have on the shelf. It’s called Oui.

Once we understood the design principles, we had lots of iterations. … It took us…632 versions to reach that final product. We had very different packaging. We didn’t have glass to start out with. … I’ll be the first one to say I was doubtful about the glass. … But the sound, the ting, the way it actually scoops out of the container. All of those things are exactly…part of the moment that this person who’s writing the letter was really looking for.

And we talked to over 1,000 consumers. … We were out in the Mall of America intersecting with consumers. We have a food truck, so we can drive anywhere in the city. And we’ll go out there, and we’ll meet with consumers… We will go to a farmers market…to get different consumer reactions to ultimately help us iterate to a better proposition. In year one, [we saw] $140 million dollars worth of sales.

Look at What Customers Do — Not What They Say

In the past…we surveyed a lot… We have shifted in the last couple of years to be much more about what [consumers] do…or looking at what they already buy. Those are much better predictors than what people say. And it’s not because people lie. It’s just hard for them to remember. Did they really purchase this 10 times last year, or one time? They mean well. They’re responding to their best recollection, but the reality is, a lot of times it’s not the the actual kind of thing.

We converted our Box Tops for education, which used to be…you clip the little cardboard piece out [and] you send that in… We made a big, bold step this year. We actually digitized it. Now you can scan your receipt, and get those points. One, that’s easier for consumers. But the flip side of that is that we’re getting all of those receipts. So we’re getting a chance to see what people are buying at the time when they buy our products. That’s a great opportunity, to this point of how we learn by what they’re actually doing, not what they’re saying they’re doing. We can see those receipts.

In the first 14 weeks [after] we made that conversion, we had a million people upload receipts, and that was four million receipts. … And all that data and insight is helpful for us… We’re getting real facts, real data to help us transform…

Find Ways to Reinforce Your Brand’s Purpose

Purpose is critical at the brand level, as well as at the enterprise level. But it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that really matters. … A great example of one of our brands and its purpose [is] Cheerios. … Cheerios’ purpose is about bringing positivity to the world. … Boomers feel good about eating Cheerios. We think it’s about positivity. How do we bring that forward [to a younger demographic]? And we realized who better than Ellen [DeGeneres] to bring positivity about the product out to her audiences? We kind of think of her…as the human Cheerio.

So we did a campaign with her called Good Goes Round. It’s all about paying it forward and being positive. We had a million acts of good, and her audience members sent those in. … We were the first package that ever had Ellen’s picture on it. People did wonderful acts of good. We helped support that and bring that mission to life. It’s a great example of the product’s purpose. [It] is about positivity.