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What's the next Greek yogurt?

Doug Martin has been asked that question — meaning what is the next food trend — too many times to count. But now it's his job to know, and to act on it.

"It's not a single question — what do consumers want — it's a spectrum," said Martin, the new chief brand and disruptive growth officer for General Mills. "What are consumers almost ready for? What are they almost over?"

Martin is taking on a newly consolidated innovation team at the Golden Valley-based food giant as part of broader company restructuring and layoffs last year meant to position General Mills for a post-pandemic world.

The stakes are high as the 155-year-old company looks to become, or in some cases remain, a market leader across a wide range of products.

General Mills is taking more frequent but smaller steps into "disruptive" categories through its relatively new in-house incubator, G-Works. To find the best ideas outside the company, there is startup-focused 301 Inc., while internal consultancy iSquad focuses on finding new growth opportunities for brands.

"It's this whole notion of being relentlessly focused on consumer problems," said Jon Nudi, General Mills president of North American retail, its business unit that accounts for a majority of the company's $18 billion in yearly sales.

The way General Mills gathers consumer insights is new, Nudi said: "We've always prided ourselves in understanding consumers. Now we dig deeper to understand."

That problem-solving approach is meant to help General Mills catch the next Greek yogurt — a trend the company initially, and painfully, missed.

"We've learned from that," Nudi said. "At the end of the day, you have to increase the number of risks you're taking."

Bold Cultr

One problem General Mills recently set out to solve: "I want to avoid dairy products, but I miss cheese," Martin said.

The solution: Late in 2021 General Mills unveiled Bold Cultr, a lactose-free cheese made with milk proteins produced by microflora and fermentation.

It's non-animal cheese rather than purely non-dairy. In other words, it's the cheese equivalent to lab-grown meat. Bold Cultr cream cheese-style spreads will initially be rolled out at some metro area HyVee stores to test the market.

"It performs like a real cream cheese," Martin said. "The next step is shreds and slices — when you bite into a vegan pizza are you getting that Pizza Hut-commercial cheesy stretch? Probably not."

The brand was developed by G-Works, which comprises several three-person "co-founder" teams that come from different areas of the company — R&D, marketing and consumer insights — to focus solely on innovation.

The goal is to swiftly adapt to fast-changing consumer tastes and needs instead of playing catch-up.

"General Mills, like most food companies, was surprised by the dramatic shift millennials had on the food industry, and they're not going to let that happen again," said Vivian Martin, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management and a 35-year General Mills veteran who retired as vice president for international consumer insights in 2014.

She said a "relentless pursuit" of connecting with consumers is the ticket to figuring out "what stays and what goes" for long-term food trends.

"Right now all my students are Gen Z, and I can say with some certainty that non-dairy alternatives, gluten-free, plant-based meat: These things are coming," she said. "Yet there needs to be an understanding that some things change and some things stay the same."

Existing brands

Nearly 50 years ago, General Mills became the first big food company to sell granola bars. Through the years, Nature Valley has added flavors, sizes and, more recently, recyclable wrappers.

"Innovation is the total product offering — not just the product within it, but how we get it to you," Doug Martin said.

General Mills recognizes it won't be the first with every consumer "solution." The company's venture capital arm, 301 Inc., focuses on investing in outside, founder-driven startups. It made a second investment into PetPlate last month as part of a $19 million funding round for the premium pet food subscription service.

Doug Martin said General Mills will continue to do both internal innovation and external investing, with a focus on knowing what consumers need throughout their day.

"Consumers don't live their lives in grocery store categories," he said.

Or, as Nudi puts it, "Consumers aren't all one thing."

The former CEO of Annie's, for example, was a pioneer of health foods but was known to drink several Diet Cokes every morning, Nudi said of John Foraker.

With increasingly sophisticated data and analytics operation, those paradoxes can be better incorporated into General Mills products.

"Consumer actions are way more powerful in predicting than what consumers tell you," Nudi said. "The one thing that hasn't changed is consumers still want variety, and they want new things."