Speaking yesterday at CAGNY 2015 in New York, Jeff Harmening, chief operating officer of General Mills’ US retail business said the market climate remained challenging, with company sales and operating profit down in H1.
But he said the company expects to reverse the trend in H2, with growth in US retail that puts the consumer first and understands the trends that are driving their food choices.
“We then give consumers what they want by investing in compelling core brand renovation and new product innovations aligned with those brands and trends,” Harmening said.
General Mills’ innovation and investment focus is on its key businesses, he explained. Namely, cereals, snacks, its fast-growing natural and organic portfolio and yogurt.
Key US consumer trends: 'Wellness' wins and snacks explode
This investment is informed by two key food trends the company sees with US consumers. Firstly, an interest in ‘wellness’ – more proteins, no artificial ingredients, more organic products and gluten-free choices.
Secondly, Harmening said, the accelerating US snacking trend has now reached tipping point, and snacks now comprise half of all US eating occasions.
Discussing Yoplait yogurt in this context - the company sees a real opportunity for yogurt as a snack that moves beyond the snacking aisle - Harmening said Yoplait US retail sales (Nielsen XAOC) rose 9% from December to January fiscal 2015 (the quarter to date) and grew steadily since Q3 fiscal 2014, when they fell 6%.
“What a difference a year makes! Last year many of you were worried about the future growth prospects for our US Yoplait business,” he said.
“But in fiscal 2015 we delivered broad-based sales and share growth, which is accelerating.”
The turnaround began with Greek, Harmening said, as the company renovated its Greek 100 Calorie line to make products that consumers preferred in blind taste tests – Yoplait Greek is now outperforming the general Greek segment that grew 8% in the quarter to date.
“We put significant investment behind that on TV and on digital media – and our business took off. Our sales in the Greek segment are up 46% in the latest quarter to date – this is now a $350m business for us in measured channels alone,” he said.
Original style Yoplait also bounces back...
While General Mills continues to up-rate its media spend, Harmening said the company continued to explore new growth possibilities.
“Some consumers want a higher protein yogurt but don’t like the thick texture of the current Greek offerings. So we introduced Yoplait Greek 100 Whips! with 9g of protein and a lighter texture.
Sales of ‘original style’ Yoplait yogurt are also growing again, Harmening added, since General Mills stripped HFCS and artificial flavors out of its products from July 2013 and invested in “all family snack focused advertising".
“These efforts have retail sales growing double digits, and we have more news coming. Next month we’ll begin to roll out a 25% sugar reduction across the entire line. We’re excited about the prospects for continuing growth in this business,” he said.