Heidi Emanuel

Nearly seven years ago, General Mills formally adopted its open innovation platform, the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), and since then we’ve connected with numerous external partners to help us introduce some of our most successful new product launches in recent years, including Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownie and Nature Valley Protein bars.

Time and again, the success of these partnerships has confirmed our belief that by connecting with companies and individuals outside our own walls, we can more effectively meet the needs of our consumers through delivering better, bigger innovations to the marketplace quickly.

As we increasingly incorporated external innovation into our products, we also began to explore new ways to more nimbly get these products in front of consumers. Could we take our open approach to innovation even further by connecting directly with our consumers early in the new product development (NPD) process? It was our hypothesis that if we gave consumers a voice in our innovation process early enough, their insights could help shape the direction of our projects and enable us to move more quickly and ultimately help us deliver more remarkable products to meet consumer demands.

For a large company like General Mills, this represents a major paradigm shift. While entrepreneurs and smaller companies often rely on face-to-face consumer feedback at every stage of development, larger corporations like ours typically follow a traditional, gated process and traditional analytic or quantitative tools to determine which new ideas will be pursued and which will be tabled. The trouble with the traditional model is some ideas make it through the process, but ultimately don’t succeed in the market because they aren’t offering a meaningful differentiated benefit, or consumers don’t understand the product.

Over the past several years, we’ve welcomed world-class entrepreneurs to the General Mills family through our acquisitions of companies like LARABAR and Food Should Taste Good. As a result, we have learned that entrepreneurs don’t follow traditional practices like a formal stage-gate process. Instead, they interact directly with their consumers in their “natural habitat” early on, and as a result, they are able to deliver products that not only meet consumer needs, but also inspire brand loyalty.

About two years ago, our Consumer Insights organization created new research methods which allow teams to “Sell-to-Learn”. We charged our teams to get the product “good enough” and test it with real consumers by actually trying to sell it very early in the NPD process. Our belief is that 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. 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. Here are five tips that have worked for us:

1. Establish experts to guide the process. The Sell-to-Learn model requires our Consumer Insights and R&D teams to work together on in-market experimentation. To facilitate this teamwork, we dedicated internal experts to guide the process and ultimately bring ideas to life.

2. Leverage external resources to stay agile. Our open innovation strategy has been a critical factor to the success of our Sell-to-Learn strategy. We rely on our external partners to help us create prototypes quickly and adapt them as we learn what consumers really want.

3. Good enough? Move on. A good enough prototype is just that: good enough. There is no need to wait until a new product is ‘perfect’—the exact right name, the exact right packaging, and so forth—before getting it in front of consumers for the first time. On the contrary, by presenting a “minimum viable product” to consumers sooner in the process, we can use their feedback to ensure we’re making the right decisions down the line, ultimately saving both time and money.

4. Engage consumers in their natural habitat. Unlike traditional testing methods, which can be artificial, we’re asking the consumer to make a real decision about whether or not to buy a product, resulting in more authentic feedback. Instead of telling consumers what you think they want to know, this model allows us to interact and ask consumers real questions in real time. This is invaluable in determining how to shape a product.

5. Keep going or pivot? Your consumer will tell you. In our traditional gated innovation process, some good ideas never come to fruition because of lingering questions or doubts. On the flip side, like any company, some of our product launches ultimately flop. Now, we are increasingly using the knowledge we gain when we Sell-to-Learn to help us understand if we should continue working on a project, accelerate it, or revamp the idea significantly.

To learn more about how General Mills collaborates with outside partners, visit the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN) online at www.generalmills.com/win.


Heidi Emanuel is Vice President of Innovation,
Quality & Technology at General Mills, Inc.,
Minneapolis, MN 55440
([email protected]).

In This Article

  1. Food Product Development