Putting silos on the sideline

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley explain why having spent 2020 on the "fourth line" might make marketers realize their work is a team effort.

By John Bradley and Carrie Bradley

Our eye was taken by a recent article about Ivan Pollard, the global chief marketing officer of General Mills.

Not because of his nomination as WFA Global Marketer of the Year or the many brand success stories detailed within.

No, what we loved about what’s been going on at General Mills was how 2020 forced the company’s marketers to rediscover something very valuable indeed: everyone else who works at General Mills.

“From the marketing point of view, we are now much more integrated with the other parts of the business,” Pollard says. “We are a more connected organization from the marketing supply chain to sales.” These silos, he says, “are one of the challenges of the 21st century big businesses.” With each part of the business large enough to operate within its own right, he says “we’d almost forgotten that our departments are parts of a wider business.”

Indeed. But rest assured Ivan, it’s not just you.

Of course, the pity is that it took an unprecedented situation where sales were skyrocketing, irrespective of what the marketers were doing, to make those marketers appreciate that business strategy encompasses a lot more than marketing strategy. Ivan highlights the catalyst for his teams’ Damascene conversion as being the biggest questions on his consumers’ minds last year: “‘Can I afford it?’ ’Can I get hold of it?’ and ’Can I trust it?’”

The answers to at least 2.5 of those three questions come, not from the marketers, but from everyone else at General Mills.

While marketers may play a role in identifying ideal selling prices, keeping to those prices at a time when every packaged food company was scrambling to source more ingredients from supply chains impacted by COVID-19 was a herculean task for everyone else. “Can I get hold of it?” was down to logistics and sales managers, while “Can I trust it?” was more in the hands of quality control and production managers than the marketers – for most of the brands they manage, they inherited trust built over many decades. The key trust issue in 2020 was to make sure the extra ingredients were of the right standard for such trustworthy brands as Betty Crocker, Wheaties, Green Giant and the like.

We also liked that it was General Mills that figured out silos are best used for storing grain. From its genesis as a group of flour milling companies realizing that the rise of the supermarket chains would pit them against each other and wipe out all their profits, to the realization that success depended not on selling more flour into grocery stores, but in persuading American homemakers to bake more frequently – enter Betty Crocker – to then reducing that baking effort to “just add an egg,” General Mills has always had forward thinking baked into its DNA (none of these brilliant developments were figured out by anyone who could remotely pass today as a marketer, by the way).

It shouldn’t have taken a once-in-a-century pandemic to make even one marketing team realize that the short-, medium- and long-term success of their brands depends, not on them alone, but on how well they function with all the other parts of their business, executing an integrated business strategy. Nor to realize that marketing isn’t necessarily the star player in the team. In fact, we could argue that during 2020, marketing was on the fourth line, but that doesn’t mean they were any less valuable to the overall team effort. Maybe a spell on the fourth line would help a lot of marketers realize that business is a team effort, where anyone can be the star player.

Where we don’t agree with Ivan is in his assessment that marketers operating in their own silo is “one of the challenges of 21st century big businesses.” It isn’t just a challenge – it’s the biggest challenge. And it isn’t just the biggest challenge for big businesses, it’s the biggest challenge for all businesses.

It’s also the biggest and easiest win. Be as knowledgeable on how your business functions and makes money as you are on your own brand; realize that how your role in the broader business team can change as circumstances demand, and then you can’t fail.

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley are managing partners of The Bradley Group.