General Mills: Open Innovation Works
General Mills is one of the first companies to develop foods for single-serve brewing machines
Photo caption: General Mills is one of the first companies to develop foods for single-serve brewing machines
A good idea is often powerful in and of itself, but backing it up with genuine consumer enthusiasm can make it a reality. General Mills says its new Nature Valley Bistro Cups oatmeal—which can be made in a Keurig machine—is a “true testament to perseverance, belief in a product and leveraging open innovation to bring a first of its kind product to market quickly.”
Dena Strehlow is an Innovation Entrepreneur and 20-year R&D technology manager at General Mills.
“At General Mills, our approach to open innovation allows us to leverage the many advantages nimble small companies use in their speed to market,” she says. “Many times these small companies rely on intuition to launch a great idea. The Nature Valley Bistro Cups is a perfect example of how General Mills drew on its internal expertise and tapped in to external expertise to launch a truly unique product for consumers.”
Time is Right
Strehlow says General Mills had dabbled in hot oatmeal products in the early 90’s with Undercover Bears and Total Oatmeal Swirlers. The products were simple and convenient: just add hot water and enjoy. Fast-forward 20-plus years and the need for a convenient and nutritious breakfast still exists. However, time-strapped consumers were looking for new ways to get the quick breakfast they needed.
Strehlow says the time was right to revisit the possibility of bringing back hot cereal to the product line—but this time in an entirely new and relevant way. Research shows that more than 20 million U.S. households own a single-serve beverage brewer, which busy consumers use to maximize their mornings and make coffee on the fly. However, consumers still desire a healthy breakfast, which was still often going by the wayside due to the morning rush.
“Many consumers spend $2 to $3 for a cup of oatmeal from the drive-thru with their cup of coffee in the morning,” says Strehlow. “This product would make having coffee and oatmeal more convenient, more affordable, and bring more utility to a kitchen appliance many consumers already own. With more and more people using single-serve brewers, it only made sense for us to start looking at how consumers could use this appliance not just for beverages, but for food, too.”
Strehlow says she first partnered with her business team to sit down with a small group of 10 to 20 employees to talk about the concept, generate feedback, and sample some early prototypes. She quickly learned that many were already using their machine’s hot water for other things. Strehlow says this early feedback “helped pivot” and iterate the product to be more tailored to consumer habits and preferences.
Using the company’s open innovation network and tools, Strehlow says she next connected with a leading flavor developer to create the optimal spice and flavor recipe; and then she reached out to external supply chain partners to initiate conversations about packaging options.
Soon, the team quickly came up with an oatmeal prototype and went out to learn from consumers.
Learning with Consumers
General Mills says it set up a “Lemonade Stand” in two Minneapolis-area retail outlets to demo and sell the product. This would help the team gauge consumer interest in oatmeal made with a single-serve brewer.
“Our belief is the best way to know if we have a good idea is to find out if real consumers will spend real money on a real product,” says Strehlow. “While we continue to use our traditional methods for many of our new product launches, our new ‘sell-to-learn’ methods have taught us many valuable lessons and best practices.”
Strehlow and the team knew they were on to something when huge crowds started to gather around the demo stand.
General Mills says its “Lemonade Stand” results armed the team with early experimentation data, better consumer insights and huge learnings that helped direct packaging, flavor offerings, price and product placement.
General Mills launched the product on Amazon.com and quickly gained distribution with other major retailers.
Strehlow says that for a large company like General Mills, this consumer interaction represents a paradigm shift. While entrepreneurs and smaller companies often rely on face-to-face consumer feedback to drive their new product launches at every stage of development, larger corporations like General Mills typically follow a traditional, gated process and use analytic or qualitative tools to determine which new ideas will be pursued and which will be tabled.
“By quickly creating product prototypes and iterating directly with consumers throughout product development, and experimenting more in the marketplace to obtain real feedback directly from both our consumers and our customers, we are able to deliver more remarkable products to meet consumer demands,” she adds.
Behind the Scenes
Brian Tockman is senior manager for New Business Models at General Mills 301 Inc.
“Being first to market certainly has benefits, but it also comes with the responsibility to educate consumers,” he notes. “Having our team interact directly with consumers in a real-word environment greatly improved our insight and intuition on the project–that’s how we prefer to work because we feel we can be smarter and deliver products that better match what consumers want.”
General Mills was one of the first companies to launch a food product for a single-serve brewer and Nature Valley Bistro Cups is still the only hot oatmeal available for the Keurig. The product proved to be a natural fit for the Nature Valley brand. That partnered with the growing business and adoption of single-serve brewer machines resulted in a successful launch of a product that was an instant hit with consumers (the product sold out on Amazon the first day).
Since launching its open innovation strategy, General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN) in 2007, General Mills says it has challenged its teams to be more connected throughout the innovation process—both externally with outside partners and suppliers as well as internally among divisions and cross-functional teams.
General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network actively seeks partners who can help deliver breakthrough innovation. Visit www.generalmills.com/win to learn more about the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network.