NEW YORK — Big brand refreshes have been in vogue this year, a trend that’s perhaps most apparent in the food and beverage category as legacy marketers put new spins on old products. General Mills in the spring revamped its Gushers, Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot offerings for the first time in eight years, though not due to the types of headwinds that typically inspire a shakeup in marketing strategy, executives said during a discussion at Advertising Week New York on Wednesday.
“When we usually go through a process like this ... it’s because the brands are in trouble. They’ve lost share, they’re struggling,” Teman Evans, global head of design at General Mills, said during a panel with longtime agency partner Pearlfisher, which aided with the overhauls. “That wasn’t our case at all. These are brands that are incredibly popular.”
Instead, the refreshes were done to stave off disruptors and in preparation for the next generation of shoppers, placing each brand under the portfolio in a more clearly defined “swim lane” targeting different age sets. Gushers received arguably the most substantial makeover, seeking to connect with young adults who grew up with the snacks that are filled with a fruit-juice center that bursts when bitten. The shift was also intended to position Gushers to compete more directly in the crowded candy category, where unseating established players can be difficult, according to Evans.
Fruit by the Foot, meanwhile, pivoted from a hyperactive ethos to a more “chill” positioning aimed at helping teenagers unwind from stress. The cohort today has to deal with the usual coming-of-age pressures — after-school activities, nagging parents, homework — all amplified under the unforgiving lens of social media, which is ironically an essential channel for reaching them.
“Before we really pinned it down, we always talked about it in terms of more, more, more,” said Evans, in a reference to how Fruit by the Foot keeps unrolling even when you expect it to stop. “What we finally realized was [the unrolling] was what our consumers were really using as chill time to slow down.”
Finally, Fruit Roll-Up sought to shore up a message around serving as a “canvas for play” encouraging self-expression in young kids. The brand received the narrowest degree of change, though one that could still make a difference as General Mills looks to sustain momentum coming out of the pandemic.
While Evans claimed it is still too early to tell the “complete sales story” for the revamped products, which started hitting shelves last summer, he indicated market share and brand desire scores are moving in a positive direction. General Mills posted solid sales in its most recent financial quarter, with revenue up 4% year-over-year.
“In some cases, design stops at what we call the top of funnel,” said Evans. “Awareness is great — we need eyes — but we also have to convert those eyes into dollars and cents, and the best design does both.”
Out with the old
When assessing what to drop and what to keep in the refresh process, General Mills and its partners relied heavily on “memory cues.” The company would present consumers with a blank piece of paper and ask them to depict what they believed was representative of a given brand. Whatever showed up on the page was an asset worth amplifying, according to Evans.
“What I love about that kind of research is stuff that you assume is a memory cue isn’t, and things that maybe you thought weren’t are,” the executive said.
Gushers, for instance, ended up not having a particularly memorable logo. The previous one was dropped in favor of a splashier black design that summons to mind nostalgic ‘90s kid touchstones like the Nickelodeon splat.
The redesign, which includes a custom typeface, is meant to imbue the brand with greater attitude and edge, supporting the push to age the product up to an older audience, said Hamish Campbell, vice president and executive creative director at Pearlfisher’s New York branch. It also recognizes the need to have a clear identity beyond physical retail and packaging. Evans described the phenomenon of brands with samey social media pages where every post is a zoomed-in shot of product, with little flare to distinguish it from the pack.
“That is a telltale sign that they don’t have much to work with,” said Evans. “We did some internal soul-searching and we realized, if we’re going to show up in these comms channels where our consumers are, we’ve got to count those assets that move beyond just the box.”
“We can’t only think about the traditional retail space. We also [need to] think about that e-commerce and digital space,” he added later.
In line with the idea of stepping beyond packaging, General Mills has been investing more in sonic branding with the help of Made Music Studio. A recognizable tune can drive positive association and make a brand more memorable, Evans said, pointing to streaming services that can be identified by their startup noise alone.
“We want to create brand worlds, which means we’re creating assets that fire across as many of the senses as possible,” said Evans.
Hanging over the design and agency spaces is the threat of generative artificial intelligence, a major topic at Advertising Week in the wake of ChatGPT mania. Questioned by the panel’s moderator, Ad Age reporter Erika Wheless, about his thoughts on AI, Evans affirmed that the human element will prevail even as the newfangled tech holds promise on the innovation front.
“When you think about the challenges, anything the AI touches, can you protect it in terms of copyrights and trademarks?” said Evans. “That starts to get a little hairy and gray.”