Doug Martin

Chief Brand & Disruptive Growth Officer
General Mills
"The trick is figuring out when is the moment to jump on a trend."
Doug Martin, Chief Brand and Disruptive Growth Officer at General Mills, explains how a CMO can influence a company's future in tangible ways to spur sustainable growth.
Doug, please explain your very interesting job title: Chief Brand and Disruptive Growth Officer.
‘The Chief Brand Officer is pretty much a traditional CMO role, whilst the Disruptive Growth Officer is trying to create new growth. We're a 150-year-old company with amazing, established brands, but we need to create new growth as well. I have an organic incubator and a venture capital arm that sits in the disruptive growth side of things. I'm more of a facilitator and enabler. We have strong brand marketing functions. They own the building of Pillsbury, Cheerios, and all of those brands. My job is to create the capabilities and the systems to enable them to succeed in that job.’
Is yours a relatively new role at General Mills?
‘It's the first time we've coupled this disruptive growth ecosystem with the CMO role. It is about the ability to continue to create and add that to the CMO role. What we're trying to do here is say: it's not just about defending the spend. It's about leveraging marketing and new growth to drive positive outcomes and growth for the company. We’re trying to lean forward into our belief in marketing and brand building.’

How would you put that into practice?
‘It’s not fair to ask a person to build Cheerios for the 76th year, and at the same time to reinvent breakfast. Those are both full-time jobs that demand very different processes and skills. In our organic incubators we ask three-person, cross-functional teams to very quickly create and build new brands. One person is a business leader type, one is a consumer insights and measurement type, and one is a builder; an ITQ and R&D person.’
What is one of the main food problems to solve at General Mills?
‘Managing weight is one of the biggest. But the team that is furthest along is on a brand called Good Measure. Their big picture problem was: managing diabetes. The acute problem is: I have diabetes, but I still want to snack and have as convenient snacks during the day as everybody else. The Good Measure brand is founded on low blood sugar response snacking products. They're now moving from limited regional distribution to national distribution with a couple of key retailers in the summer. It's a scale up from there.’

You manage over some hundred brands. What are some of the best-known ones?
‘We have a house of brands approach as opposed to a branded house. People mostly connect General Mills to cereal, because that Big G is on the box. Pillsbury was a massive success in the United States through the pandemic. But we also have Blue Buffalo dog and cat food, which is a high growth business. Yoplait is very big business. We're in around 95 per cent of houses in the United States. We're much smaller in Europe. We have fairly scaled businesses in the UK and France. Our biggest business outside the US is Häagen-Dazs, which has an incredible shop as well as in-store business. It's our most developed business in China and is just ripe for a ton of growth. We are ambitious to grow internationally.’

You've been at General Mills since 2005. What keeps you there?
‘I'm here because I'm still learning more in this job than I have in any other job before. It keeps me highly engaged and motivated. The importance of tech development and our ability to actually connect with the consumer, that's been learning on steroids for me.’
If you want to disrupt, do you follow trends or go against them?
‘The trick is figuring out when is the moment to jump on a trend. The hardest thing is to change consumer behaviour. If you can jump into a river that's moving in a direction at the right moment in time, that's really powerful. In our disruptive growth side of things, we're starting small; we're iterating, we're digitally testing, we're moving as quickly as possible. Ultimately, we're a really big company. We still need these trends to have the potential to scale into big trends at some point in time. So, it's a combination: you need a trend to be at your back, and sometimes you got to get lucky with the right timing of that trend so that it's scaling when you're ready to scale.’
When did you jump in at the right time?
‘One of my lucky moments was when I was managing innovation for Nature Valley, another billion-dollar brand that basically created the granola bar category in 1975. About 10 years ago, I initiated the Nation Valley Protein Bar. At that moment protein was really tipping mainstream, and it was a hundred million business in year one. That was part good luck, and part trying to understand where the consumer was at that moment in time. But you also get it wrong sometimes.’

When did you miss the buck?
‘We launched YQ Yogurt, one of the best yogurts we ever created. It was low sugar, great overall macros, right on trend with where the consumer was at that moment in time. But I dramatically overcomplicated the communication. We jumped right to: let's create a lifestyle brand, bringing people along on the journey before saying what's in this yogurt. We put one foot too far in front of the other. We never really grounded it in the consumer's mind and what it could do for them. Ultimately it ended up going away. There's not just the trend, there's also how to connect the dots with the consumer at that moment in the trend.’
Here’s a dilemma for you: premium brand or most popular?
‘Premium brand. Take Häagen-Dazs; if you look at the global ice cream category, there is a whole lot of tonnage at the base end and the profit really sits at the top end of the category. The problem with not being premium is that the opposite can often be commoditized. And commoditized is not a good place to be. General Mills believes in the value that brands can bring to life for consumers.’

Profits or growth?
‘You got to do both. Nothing is cratering more than high growth companies with no path to profit. A business must make sense and fund itself. We're a big established, solid company. We are really good at figuring out how to get to profit if you have the growth. We have so many skills and capabilities in our company to manage that. The harder thing to do is to have that exciting thing that captures the consumer's attention, that makes them want to consume over and over again. And if you have that growth, the other problems are easier to solve.’
What about growth for the sake of growth?
‘There's a tremendous amount of innovation in food. There's a lot of people who can start up a business tomorrow and drive some growth out of it. Ultimately, if the consumer is not paying you enough to cover your cost, then you haven't really solved a problem. You've created a runway to burn some cash, but what we call product market fit isn't there if they're not willing to compensate you for the cost of building that product.’

Do CMO’s need to work more closely with CFO’s to secure growth?
‘That's hard to argue with. Our challenge is in the rampant number of metrics that we can look at. How do we connect the metrics that matter to real profit growth? There was a moment in time when we were all throwing out metrics such as how many likes something got. But did that do anything for the business? Maybe in some cases... But financial questions need financial answers. We have to show where the spend is delivering growth and profit back to the business.’
What's your take on the return of the CMO in the boardroom?
‘I think CMOs should be everywhere. When we talk about CMO tenure and the CMO-CFO relationship, the underlying thing is the complexity of the marketing world today. This was much easier when measuring a TV campaign, doing some events and some couponing. These days, it is sometimes hard to distil all this activity down to those tight right correct metrics. That's where people get tripped up.’

CFO’s tend to get more involved in CDP’s, technology, and investments. Are they eating into the CMO role more and more?
‘One of the things that we talk about internally is the blurring of lines between our traditional functions. Where is the line between sales and marketing when you're selling online through a customer, retail media network, et cetera? The other one is the line between marketing, CTO, CFO, and/or CIO. When you're investing tens of millions of dollars in technical platforms, you're gonna blur those lines and you're gonna need partnership. When you spend 20 million with a partner, you must connect all of the dots. We're fortunate in that we have an excellent CFO who plays the role very holistically.’
New technologies, such as virtual experiences, create a strong immersive nature. Can you still entertain the crowd responsibly while promoting snacks?
‘The way that we create meaningful connections with consumers and brands, doesn't change over time. The tools that enable it do. If entertaining is a key way to connect consumers to your snack brand, then that never changes. We just did this campaign to bring the Chex Mix snack back. We got Sir Mix-A-Lot to sing a song Bagel is Back, standing on top of a giant bagel chip that looked a little like a butt. It's pure entertainment and the sales responded immediately because people thought it was fun. That's gonna work, no matter what the technological environment is.’
I don't think ChatGPT would come up with that one…
‘Maybe ChatGPT 5.0, but 4.0 isn't getting that.
Can you give a tangible example of a web 3.0 or AI initiative you tested?
‘Sure. Lucky Charms is a brand that's all about fun and joy and magic. We did a really nice integration with Roblox, because that is where that audience is. It's a passion point, and we felt that the brand could show up in that environment in a way that felt natural and fit. We're not yet gonna build a Yoplait world in Decentral land, because the audience isn't there yet. But it's important to stay aware of where those things are and how they're developing.’

You once said that one of your purposes is to continually ask yourself: how can we make someone's day better?
‘Absolutely. We talk a lot about 'solve problems, deliver joy'. Cheerios is made of oats, and oats are good for your heart. We have been on that message for a long time. Other times it's just a moment of delight that you need in a day. Right now, we have the Fruit Rollups brand that’s gone crazy on TikTok because people realize that if you put some vanilla ice cream inside of a fruit roll-up, it instantaneously freezes and becomes like a crispy mochi. That's just a moment of pure joy.’

What keeps you awake at night?
‘I'm trying to create the conditions for the people growing our brands to thrive. If there's one thing that keeps me up at night, it's: am I pushing fast enough? Am I moving forward? Am I helping everyone move forward enough? Am I connecting all of the dots so that people can succeed in this organization? Are we leading? What else is out there? And the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day I’ve never said: I'm done.’
About Doug Martin
Doug Martin has been at General Mills since 2005. He is currently the company’s Chief Brand and Disruptive Growth Officer. Doug plays a vital role in the long-term growth strategy of the 150-year-old global food processing company. He recently served as president of the North America Dairy Operating Unit for brands like Yoplait and Liberté. Previously he worked at Gap Inc. and The Walt Disney Studios.

About General Mills
General Mills is a multinational food company headquartered in the United States. The company produces and markets a wide range of food products, including breakfast cereals, snacks, baking mixes, yogurt, and pet food, among others. Some of its best-known brands include Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Nature Valley, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Yoplait. General Mills was founded in 1866 and has grown to become one of the largest food companies in the world, with operations in more than 100 countries. As of the latest fiscal year ending May 30, 2021, General Mills reported a net sales revenue of approximately $18.1 billion USD.
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