General Mills Canada’s head ‘cheer’-leader

Dale Storey and General Mills help Canadians cheer on our Olympians.

VP marketing Dale Storey is championing roots innovation, mixing experimentation with good old-fashioned consumer insights

It was a conversation with the team at General Mills AOR Cossette in Toronto that sparked the idea that has put the consumer at the heart of Cheerios’ Olympic sponsorship activities. One look at the product reveals a linguistic link between the consumer at home and the athlete on the podium: the word ‘cheer,’ which could easily be cut out and used as a postcard to send support to an athlete. All that was left to do was to get Canada Post – also an official sponsor – involved to arrange a postage-paid stamp on the package, and create a heartwarming TV spot featuring a young boy and one of Canada’s hopes for a figure skating medal this month, Patrick Chan.

‘It was such an intrinsic link to the brand, that you just couldn’t miss it,’ says VP marketing Dale Storey. ‘When you see it you say, now why didn’t we do that before, it’s just so obvious.’
General Mills and Canada Post have extended their partnership to the Games themselves to build a street-level ‘cheer wall’ of the cut-out cards as well as an autograph tent and sampling venue at the Canada Post processing plant on Georgia Street in Vancouver.
As Canada’s largest cereal brand, Cheerios was the natural focal point for General Mills’ sponsorship of the Games – a sponsor since Nagano in 1998. ‘Part of the essence of Cheerios is optimism, positivity, encouragement, and those values align perfectly with the Olympics when the Olympics is at its best,’ says Storey.
For General Mills, the Vancouver 2010 sponsorship activity began last Canada Day with an on-box promotion that sent consumers online to enter a code and select one of 20 amateur athletes to receive a $5 donation from the company on their behalf. Another promotion also drove to online, where consumers could claim a free red t-shirt with athletes’ signatures in the shape of the Canadian flag. Storey’s team shipped out approximately 400,000 shirts.
‘The key success factor in marketing is being able to know a big idea when you see it and not throwing it out if it’s not exactly what you thought it was going to be,’ says Storey, commenting on the feel-good, no-tech ‘Cheer’ concept. ‘We had a totally different idea of what our Olympic activation was going to be until someone said, wait a minute’ – holding his hand over the last three letters in the Cheerios logo – ‘‘okay, let’s play with that!”
It’s the kind of rallying idea that General Mills’ retail partners have been cheering for, too, backing up the effort with in-store activations throughout this month. One such program taps into Olympic hockey fervour: top retail locations across Canada are mounting massive displays centred on a live hockey shootout, complete with goalie, stick, puck and prizes customized to the banners.

Consumers can take the fun home with them on packages of Honey Nut Cheerios, featuring a re-mount of a fold-down paper goalie game that uses a Cheerio as the puck. First introduced for Nagano, Storey has the original prototype in his office, which gives a hint to the 39-year-old’s history with the company where he has spent his entire career.
Storey started on Cheerios as an assistant brand manager 16 years ago this June. Now VP marketing for the entire Canadian portfolio since February 2009, he’s in charge of approximately 50 people handling breakfast (including Big G cereals), baked goods (Betty Crocker, Pillsbury), snacks (Fruit Roll-Ups, Pizza Pops) and meals (Old El Paso, Green Giant, Hamburger Helper), as well as PR, promotions, consumer insights and health and wellness.
While Canada has traditionally adopted strategy and positioning from the international divisions, in the last few years the ideas have been flowing in the opposite direction.
Recently Canada has received recognition from the industry at large – witness the silver Cannes Lion for Pizza Pops last year – but it’s the internal accolades Storey values most. The Canadian division was recognized by the Minnesota HQ last year for repositioning Multigrain Cheerios as a weight management product emphasizing sustainable lifestyle rather than hardcore diet. The brand has more than tripled in size in four years – and the U.S. later applied the Canadian insight, strategy and execution and doubled its business.
‘Under Dale’s leadership about four years ago we said, let’s get back to the basics’ like consumer research, ethnographies, and CRM with brand loyalists, says director of marketing, cereal, Jason Doolan, who has worked closely with Storey for 10 years. ‘We needed to forge our own strategy and come to grips with what the consumer relationship is with these brands in the Canadian market.’

For example, on Fibre 1 cereal and snack bars, the team made a decision two years ago to stray from the U.S. positioning. ‘In Canada fibre is really developed as a segment of breakfast. Something like 10% of cereal sales in Canada are high-fibre cereals, and that’s not the same in the U.S.,’ Storey says. Instead, the ‘Fibre 1, Step 1′ positioning developed out of a behavioural insight rather than a product benefit – namely that people’s interest level in healthy living waxes and wanes, and that Fibre 1 could be seen as the first step of thousands towards a goal – say an extreme sport like surfing or snowboarding, as featured in the television ads. It’s a tweak that earned them double sales in the last two years.
Storey formerly shared his VP marketing role with Doug McGillivray, now VP sales, until the reorganization last February. Since then he’s introduced a series of mandates. First up was to ‘get truly convergent, get off TV, get digital, and do it quick,’ he says, adding that he aims to increase the budget for digital marketing from 1 to 2% of sales a few years ago to 10% in the next few years.
This led to a search marketing exercise and to a redesign of CRM site into, by Toronto agency Digital Cement last fall. Rather than build a separate site for each brand as per the U.S. model, the Canadian site is a one-stop-shop for recipes, coupons and other content for what Storey calls their ‘most valuable consumers.’
The second mandate was ‘to get a lot more experimental, and to create the process and the environment where we could try five big bets this year that we have no idea if they’ll work.’
Storey has set aside a portion of the consumer budget for ‘bold experiments,’ explaining, ‘as we try and become more innovative, and the only way to be experimental is to set out some money and you dedicate it to stuff that probably won’t work. We don’t usually think that way; because we test things to death, probably 80 to 90% of things we put into market tend to work. So we said this year we need to change that cultural dynamic…if it doesn’t work, it’s okay.’
The final mandate was ‘to get more external,’ says Storey. Recent team trips to Spin Master Toys and Microsoft have focused on building a culture of innovation and inspiring staff. ‘He completely understands that it’s a collaborative effort,’ says Doolan. ‘His ability to sniff out a good idea that’s passing by in the wind and seize on it is one of his key strengths.’

Three questions for Dale Storey

1. When you joined General Mills, did you imagine that you’d stay there this long?
I thought that way, but I’m not sure that General Mills did, because I was 22 years old and I was working with a set of people who were half a generation older. I had no idea how to find the bathroom in a corporate setting. Of the class that we hired – I think there were seven people – I was the very last to get promoted to marketing manager. So I was a bit of a late bloomer, I guess.

2. What’s your dream job?
When I retire from here I’m probably going to buy a gym and just be that guy who hangs out at the gym all day and doesn’t make much money, but helps people.

3. What’s your favorite General Mills product?
[My daughter] likes Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and that’s probably my favorite cereal too, because it’s just so indulgent and good. And then Nature Valley is the other one that we live on – Nature Valley Sweet and Salty Bars are heavenly goodness.