Big G Opens Up

General Mills reorganizes internal channel structure, expands open-innovation platform to the benefit of c-stores
General Mills Chex Chips

Chex Chip, one of the new items developed through General Mills' open-innovation platform G-WIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- While c-stores sometimes conduct business on an island—lacking committed new-product support tailored specifically to their clientele—some supplier partners have heard a clarion call, implementing new corporate visions to drive c-store growth opportunities and developing innovation processes that help big brands be more nimble.

General Mills recently retired its Bakeries & Foodservice unit and relaunched it as Convenience & Foodservice, a $2-billion organization designed around innovative new-product ideation.

This month, it brought two new c-store-tailored products to market—Chex Chips and Nature Valley Nut Clusters—with more c-store-specific offerings in the pipeline.

Developing these products didn’t happen in a corporate silo, but rather an open-design platform called General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), which connects the company with other manufacturers or inventors that can pitch new product ideas or answer General Mills’ calls for collaboration.

Open Season on Innovation
“One thing we’ve realized since launching G-WIN is that it’s important to be specific and transparent about the challenges you’re looking to solve in order to identify the right partner for the project,” Mike Helser, senior manager of G-WIN, tells Convenience Store Products.

With partners from large corporations to small businesses and individual inventors, G-WIN has enabled the company to implement “new connections and [build] lasting relationships with thousands of companies and individuals across the globe,” says Helser.

“For example, it’s one thing to say that you’re seeking ‘packaging solutions’—as we may have done early on in our efforts—and another to say that you’re looking for ways ‘to use renewable content in flexible packaging films and rigid containers.’ ”

The platform contains several key components. A powerful one is company-sponsored Supplier Summits, which “bring together our top suppliers to network, hear about the company’s business strategies and learn about specific partnership opportunities,” says Helser. General Mills might have once been “too close to the vest about our future plans and projects, even with suppliers,” he says. “We now see the value existing suppliers can have at the front end of innovation.”

One tool that’s been results-driven, says Helser, is the G-WIN innovation portal, the content of which features “clearly articulated technical challenges, [and it invites] visitors to create and submit non-confidential proposals,” says Helser. “During the first year of launching this more robust and clearly articulated site, we connected with more than 1,000 inventors from around the world and received more than 500 proposals.”

G-WIN also allows General Mills to find solutions for its own limitations. Recent channel-specific c-store products such as Chex Chips, Nature Valley Nut Clusters, Chewy Betty Crocker Caramel Brownie, Chex Mix Muddy Buddies Snickerdoodle and Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies all resulted from external partner support.  

The General Mills Convenience team tapped the expertise of an outside partner company to help source the ingredients for Chex Chips: The product is produced by a co-manufacturer who has more flexibility of scale than General Mills’ own production facilities.

In assessing the c-store channel and its mechanisms, the company plans to start “relatively small with new-product launches in comparison to a traditional U.S. retail launch, and then grow year over year,” it explained in a recently released report on G-WIN. “The approach led to the reliance upon external partners willing to scale with the company over time.”

Of course, all of this innovation is balanced by a strong sense of category management and acknowledgement of the importance of core SKUs.

“Ongoing partnering with our retail, drug and dollar-store category managers enable us to understand product and consumer similarities and differences across channels,” says Kelly Fulford, senior category development manager for General Mills Convenience & Foodservice. “Our customers really value that we have a pulse around the trends in other channels and can bring them a holistic, strategic lens that they can apply to their business.”