General Mills has built on its august history with one successful innovation after another, especially in packaging.

Also seeTimeline: 10 Years of Packaging Innovations at General Mills

Ken Powell

General Mills is one of the most successful, prominent food companies in America by almost any measure:

Historically. Incorporated in 1928, General Mills has generated or acquired some of the most prominent brands (Cheerios, Bisquick, Wheaties, Yoplait, Old El Paso) and most highly visible advertising icons in the food industry (Betty Crocker, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Green Giant).

Financially. The company celebrated 8% growth in U.S. net sales and 1% growth in operating profit in the most recent quarter, on top of a 6% increase in companywide operating profit in fiscal 2008.

Inventively. Innovation has always been a key part of General Mills’ success, from pioneering the concept of ready-to-bake dough to introducing yogurt in a tube.

General Mills’ multilevel success earned it Packager of the Year honors from Food & Beverage Packaging magazine in 2003 and 2008. Now, as part of our 50th Anniversary Issue, we are naming General Mills our Packaging Innovator of the Decade.

We recently spoke with top packaging executives at General Mills to get a historical perspective on how packaging has contributed to the company’s overall success, as well as how packaging will shape its success in the future.

How important is packaging at General Mills and why?

Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive officer: Innovation continues to drive General Mills’ top line performance, and packaging is a key part of that strategy. Innovative packaging is critical to the success of any new product. It not only plays a prominent role in influencing consumers’ purchase decisions at the shelf, but also in how consumers interact with our products at home.

Peter Erickson

Looking back over the last 10 years, what do you think General Mills’ greatest packaging achievements have been?

Peter Erickson, SVP of innovation, technology and quality: Over the last 10 years, our packaging community has become much more consumer- and customer-focused, endlessly looking for ways to improve consumers’ lives with enhanced levels of convenience, while maintaining a great value at the store shelf. Clear examples of this deliberate strategy are found in several outstanding packaging innovations that our packaging community has led across our company:

• The debut of Yoplait Go-Gurt in 1999 was revolutionary. First to market, the portable yogurt-in-a-tube packaging concept was an immediate hit with kids and parents across the U.S. Eliminating the need for a spoon, demand for the squeeze-and-eat tube outpaced production during its first year. The tubes also provided a launch point for introducing other technologies, including glow-in-dark and temperature-sensitive inks.

• A few years ago, the Betty Crocker Warm Delights packaging platform took the Betty Crocker brand to a new level of convenience. In less than two minutes, a consumer can enjoy a delicious dessert from an individual-serve microwavable bowl. The package sleeve design shows the bowl and clearly communicates that the product is single-serve, microwavable, convenient, and delicious. In a grocery aisle, where most products are sold in cartons, this package really stands out.

• Most recently, the pouch for Green Giant Valley Fresh Steamers, launched in 2008, uses materials that withstand microwave cooking temperatures and provide stiffness to display the product “standing up.” Green Giant secured a Magic Steam feature, where vents automatically appear at the top of the bags as vegetables are heated in the microwave. Green Giant was the first company to offer steamable vegetables with sauce.

Carol Cady

Carol Cady, packaging R&D director: Pillsbury freezer-to-oven biscuits were launched in 2000, in a resealable stand-up bag. This was the first time we were able to provide consumers with a solution where they could bake up just the amount they need and store the rest. The bag has a seal-strip tape that’s used to reseal the package, and the package collapses with use, so it takes up less space in the consumer’s freezer.

The Yoplait Club Store Pack was launched in 2008. We installed form-fill-seal (FFS) lines in-house to produce a new Yoplait cup design for the club store channel. The new lines allowed flexibility in flavor varieties and cup count per case to meet customer requirements. We reduced the amount of resin per cup and eliminated multiple truck shipments annually by producing the packaging in-house on our own FFS lines. The packaging solution delivered significant productivity and sustainability benefits.

Mark Sullivan, brand design director: In the late ’90s, we did a complete redesign of our Betty Crocker dry desserts portfolio. This was all about aligning the various segments, such as cakes, brownies and cookies, across a consistent design architecture to sell the occasion rather than just a product. We really amped up the product presentation with photo-centric design that borrowed from editorial-style photography. Even to this day, that design architecture is holding well for this business.

General Mills was the first to pioneer what we call “Visible Value,” where the premiums we put in our cereal boxes became part of the package design. Our packaging development and graphic design teams partnered to leverage this new technology that allowed consumers to actually see the “prize inside,” not just a picture of it.

Finally, as our brands and businesses have expanded to non-traditional channels such as club, discount, drug and convenience stores, we have needed to rethink the role of design in these environments. By tiling graphic elements, we believe we pioneered how our products, such as “yellow box” Cheerios, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Progresso Soup and others, became massive billboards that capture consumer attention in environments where little more than the package is used to build a brand. All the while, we remained true to each brand’s core strategies.

General Mills has a lot of iconic, long-standing brands. What were some of the best examples, over the last 10 years, of such brands getting their packaging refreshed?

Carol Cady: We partnered with an external design firm, 180 Design, to revitalize our Bisquick Shake n’Pour package. The old package was somewhat industrial-looking, and it lacked ergonomic-design features. The redesigned bottle features a handle for better gripping and pouring, a fill line so that consumers can add the correct amount of water, and a smooth, curvy form that reinforces the brand equity. Sales have increased over 80% since the redesign.

In 2004, Pillsbury redesigned its refrigerated pie crust. We learned through research that consumers were really struggling mending the fold lines and creases in our old quarter-folded pie crust. So it went from a square carton to a long rectangular carton where each pie crust was rolled up instead of folded in quarters.

We kept many of the elements of the old design to assure consumers that it was the same great crust, but we also added elements to communicate the new benefit of the rolled dough. We added an illustration of the Doughboy unrolling the dough and a burst on the package that exclaimed that it was easier than ever with no folds or creases. The banner that went behind the product name had the appearance of an unrolling scroll, which also gave the cue that this was a product that was rolled up. In addition, we put the graphics in both the vertical and the horizontal orientation, so it gave the customer the ability to stock it whichever way it fit best into their refrigerated case. The redesigned product was actually preferred by over 90% of our consumers.

Mark Sullivan: Some examples of well-known brands that have had successful redesigns:

• Cheerios: Given our commitment as a trusted partner for heart-health and some news around a cholesterol-lowering message, we had an opportunity to convey this in a unique way. Thus was born the yellow box Cheerios with the heart-shaped bowl-not only an iconic design, but truly something that has become a destination brand for consumers within the often-cluttered cereal aisle.

• Green Giant: More recently, the redesign of Green Giant frozen vegetables really took the opportunity to better convey our “frozen is as nutritious as fresh” positioning. We understood the power of the Green Giant character and our “valley” as assets to create a unique visual space for us and differentiate us from the competition. We coupled this with some powerful product photography that showed both the raw state of the vegetables juxtaposed with the prepared product to create a compelling consumer link to the benefit that our products are “picked at the peak of perfection.”

Michael Ballard

What packaging machinery technologies do you feel have been most important over the last 10 years?

Michael Ballard, packaging engineering director: I feel servo technology really revolutionized the packaging industry, which allowed flexibility, reduced footprint of equipment, higher speeds, lifecycle cost advantages and just overall simplification.

We’ve also seen a shift in the electronics, with smarter logic control algorithms and a shift from more logic-based controllers to motion-based controllers.

And then there’s been a recent proliferation of industrial PCs, which provide us greater computing power and the ability to network even more, and give us stronger diagnostics.

Finally, the human interface really empowers the machine technicians at a greater level, so they can really see what’s going on inside the machine. It also provides easy configuration, maintenance, one-point lessons and troubleshooting guides that are right at their fingertips, so that obviously they don’t have to rely on a manual as much.

Gregg Stedronsky, vice president, engineering: Servo technology has enabled smaller footprints, higher performance and more precise motion profiles that can help add flexibility. This technology has also made light-arm robotics cost effective and fast enough for use in broad industrial applications.

For General Mills, it has been significant for us to leverage this technology to create “purpose built” packaging machines. That is, equipment that is designed to integrate several unit operations to our specific application with a single control system. This has proven to increase performance and flexibility beyond the assembly of “general purpose” unit operations.

How has the complexity of packaging machinery changed over the last 10 years, and how has this affected worker training?

Michael Ballard:It’s mechanically simpler, which is a good thing, but the complexity of the control systems has increased exponentially. There are two strategies for end users: increasing reliance on the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for support, and then increasing the internal knowledge base for troubleshooting and reconfiguration. And I find that most end users, and particularly General Mills, have been forced to do both.

In some cases, we do have to rely on the OEM, because that simplification of the machine created a more complex control system, and we’ve had to rely on the OEM for some level of support and diagnostics.

In the other case, we’ve really had to step up our game in terms of the technicians that we’re assigning to run that equipment. When I say step up our game, the profile of the people that we’re hiring must have a very strong technical aptitude.

Gregg Stedronsky:The broad application of servo technology and the sophisticated controls logic that brings it to life makes plant operations and support more challenging. While operators do often benefit from better information systems than we’ve had in the past, diagnosis and troubleshooting can be tougher. These changes require a higher level understanding of how the controls and machine work together. Training has had to go beyond ladder logic only, to include training in servo technology and more emphasis on the machine’s internal sequence of operations.

Wynn Wiksell

What materials do you think have had the most impact on packaging over the last 10 years?

Wynn Wiksell, manager of packaging quality and regulatory operations:It’s the small stuff-literally. Advances in polymers, additives, inks, adhesives and coatings all have advanced the macro materials that we are accustomed to, such as flexible and rigid plastics, cartons, corrugated and cans. Over the years, we have downgauged, run faster and had more control because of these small but very important innovations.

What do you like most about your job?

Carol Cady:What I really enjoy is getting deeply immersed in understanding the needs of our consumers and our customers. And then being able to connect with others, both inside and outside General Mills, to take those insights and translate them into solutions that delight our consumers and customers.

Michael Ballard:Well, if I can start broader and then narrow it in…First of all, I love General Mills. I think it’s a company that has a great match between my personal values and the corporate values. I just love the mission of nourishing lives, and I think this is one of the few places where you can work in a diverse portfolio of businesses while maintaining your personal networks and build upon your strengths for each new assignment.

If I boil that down to packaging engineering, in addition to the great people I work with, there’s always something new and exciting around the corner. General Mills relies on product innovation as one of its key growth strategies, and that drives new technical or technology solutions. So the packaging and controls technology is just rapidly changing.

Mark Sullivan:The whole area of packaging and design continues to evolve, and with that comes its unique set of challenges and opportunities. I’m privileged to work with some of the industry’s best talent, both internally and externally, who have a passion for continued innovation and using design as a key means to build brands. I love the fact I’m part of a company with some of the world’s best and beloved brands. So, for me, a portion of that is having brands with a meaningful history, but I feel that we are also creating a compelling future to bring additional opportunity and value to our brands among a strong group of loyal consumers and others who are experiencing them for the first time. It is this constant collaboration and spirit of innovation that keeps me coming back each day.

What do you look forward to most in the near future?

Michael Ballard:If I look out, I think there are going to be broader global opportunities in the next generation of the low-cost, highly flexible and energy-efficient systems which are good for the environment. I think the appropriate collection and use of information will be the differentiator in the industry.

I’m really a controls expert wrapped in a packaging suit, and I think packaging innovation really is going to require some controls knowledge to gain a competitive advantage. I believe there’s capacity in our manufacturing facilities today that’s under-leveraged, and without significant investment, we should be able to grow our base capacity. If significantly improving our reliability to gain capacity were easy, it would have been done by now.

Carol Cady:One of the things I’m really excited about is our Strategy Map Teams. Our company has really embraced the idea of cross-functional teams leading strategy development for material categories, and we think it represents a huge potential for us. Our organization is putting additional investment behind this material category manangement approach.

Mark Sullivan:We are starting to integrate design more into our business plans and challenge our design management teams and external partners to think beyond the package as well. We spend significant time ensuring that many of our key brands have a strong visual strategy which other cross-functional team members can take and apply to the various vehicles they are developing to achieve seamless campaign integration, whether that’s a free-standing insert, web campaign, in-store merchandising units and even advertising.

Since 1992, Pan Demetrakakes has written about packaging trends, technologies and leading companies. He’s won multiple awards for Editorial Excellence and has been an editor with this magazine since 2002.