Title: Director of E-Commerce - North America, General Mills
Education: University of Wisconsin (finance & management), 1990; Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management (MBA), 1999.
Community/Industry Activity: Chair, P2PI’s E-Commerce Strategies for FMCG Symposium; Who’s Who in Digital Shopper Marketing; E-Commerce Council member; Digital Shopper Marketing Council member; Minnesota Zoo Board of Directors; Evans Scholars Twins Cities Alumni President; active youth sports coach.
Matt Pierre is director of e-commerce - North America at General Mills. He and his team lead the company’s e-commerce shopper marketing activations across online retailers and also drive brand-specific, daypart-solution and event activations across a portfolio of 26 categories.
On March 13, Pierre, along with Karen Sales, vice president, digital partnerships and shopper marketing, Albertsons Co., and Jamie Sohosky, VP, marketing, customer experience, Walmart U.S., were to be honored at the 25th annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held in conjunction with the Shopper Marketing Effie Celebration, in Schaumburg (Chicago), Illinois. Both events are part of the Path to Purchase Summit.
In mid-February, Bill Schober interviewed Pierre at General Mills’ headquarters in Minneapolis.
Where did you grow up?
Pierre: I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee in a family of teachers. My dad, my mom, aunts, uncles, grandmother – all teachers. So I realized, early on, that I wanted to do anything but teach.
Ironically, now I’m at a point where I’m looking forward to retiring down the line so I can go teach. Teaching has been a big element in our company’s shopper and e-commerce evolution, and it turns out I really like mentoring, so I’m actually looking forward to that.
Did you start out in retail as a kid?
Pierre: When I was 9 I lied about my age so I could get a paper route, and I also washed dishes, painted houses and cooked in restaurants. But in middle school I started caddying at Milwaukee Country Club, one of the top courses in Wisconsin. A lot of senior executives, sports stars and industry leaders come through that course. As a caddie you not only tell players how to read the course and suggest clubs, but you’re a coach and even a bit of a psychologist. It was a developmental experience, seeing how these folks carry themselves, dealt with pressure and dealt with others.
Based on my years caddying, good grades and financial need, I was awarded a Western Golf Association Evans Scholarship with four-year tuition and housing at the University of Wisconsin.
What was your major in college?
Pierre: I arrived on campus thinking I’d become an engineer until I got a good look at the syllabus. Then I looked into calculus and thermodynamics and physics and eventually found myself double majoring in finance and management with a minor in political science.
As an Evans scholar, you live all four years in a house with 85 other kids, all from very different walks of life and all a little bit challenged financially, so they’re really motivated and hard workers. It was really a great environment to build some lasting life skills.
It’s 1990, and the end of your four years in school. What was the plan?
Pierre: My bread and butter was finance, so I’d been looking at opportunities in corporate finance and institutional investment banking. But I also had family living in the Minneapolis area, so I was very fortunate to land an opportunity with General Mills.
You’ve been at General Mills for your entire career, which is unusual, and possibly unique, among our Hall of Famers.
Pierre: What I like about General Mills is that there are so many intelligent folks that challenge you on a daily basis. Another important reason why I’ve really enjoyed my career here is how personal and relatable food is. It fits into our lives every day, helping to celebrate events and milestones, connect with family and friends. There’s a lot of emotion and richness around food that makes it a very rewarding environment.
And then there’s General Mills’ corporate culture: In 28 years, I’ve never once had an issue where I wondered, ethically, “I’m not sure we should be doing that.” I’ve been blessed, really.
You’re also unusual for our Hall of Fame in that you started out in a finance role.
Pierre: I was hired into a rotational finance program where you would work in sales, and then operations and then marketing, doing part business strategy and part numbers. In the mid-1990s, the company asked me to do an interim cross-functional role as an assistant marketing manager. It was supposed to just be for a year or two, but I never went back.
One reason to join a large corporation is that it enables you to discover new areas for your skillsets. I found that while I liked the analytic side of things, the creative aspect was even more interesting. And at General Mills, like a lot of CPGs, marketing is not just a line function but a leadership function as well: You own the P&L and are the general manager.
I was thrown right into the fire with the first brand that I worked on, Basic 4 cereal. We had a $20 million marketing budget and we’d do three television commercials a year. I really learned a lot. My second brand was Wheaties, and as you might imagine as a huge sports fan, it was fun doing commercial shoots with Michael Jordan, Steve Young, Deion Sanders – all great guys. Don’t tell the organization, but they really didn’t have to pay me for that year and a half.
You did take two years to go back to school at Northwestern.
Pierre: Marketing jobs at General Mills are highly sought after. I was the only person in marketing at that time without an MBA. Typically, the company takes newly minted recruits from top MBA schools – Harvard, Kellogg, Stanford – to fill our marketing ranks.
My time at the Kellogg School was really beneficial, honing my craft and in some ways challenging how we thought about things here. When I came back home to General Mills, I progressed through the marketing ranks with different assignments on brands like Chex cereal and Cheerios.
Does running an iconic brand like Cheerios bring added pressure?
Pierre: Sure. You hear from the CEO a little more often. And when it’s time to create a new Cheerios commercial, there are a lot of eyes on you. After that I worked on a lot of our brands as brand manager and then director – Yoplait, Go-Gurt, Chex Mix, Bugles, Fruit Roll-Ups.
After we merged with Pillsbury, I had an opportunity to work on the food service side of our business: Selling cereal to K-12s and hospitals or supplying pizza crust and bread dough to QSR chains. For me, that experience really helped me when we were developing our approach to shopper marketing.
How does General Mills define shopper marketing?
Pierre: It’s evolved significantly over the last 15 years. I was in it in the early days when we were just finding our way, and we knew that while we had great partnerships with retailers, sometimes the sales teams were doing things one way and brand marketing was doing something else. The good news was that because General Mills has the No. 1 or No. 2 positions in most of the 26 categories it plays in, we already tended to view things through a category lens rather than a “my brand first” orientation. So the shopper marketing approach of partnering to grow categories came quite naturally.
Cause marketing seems to tie a lot of things together at General Mills. Why is that?
Pierre: Cause marketing programs have always been in our DNA, allowing us to do well by doing good. Programs like “Box Tops for Education,” “Save Lids to Save Lives” and our “Outnumber Hunger” partnership with Feeding America can go deep into retailers’ ecosystems because they’re win-win-wins: They drive their categories, drive everyone’s sales and help a lot of folks.
You mentioned mentoring before. Are there formal programs?
Pierre: We have a lot of formal programs for new grads, diversity candidates and experienced hires from other organizations. But some of the most effective tools are informal where you use experienced people as sounding boards. I’d say we are unusually collegial and collaborative, which works great in times when things are going well. But in times of disruptive, fast-moving change where you need to advance the ball quickly, it can be a little counterproductive too.
The rise of e-commerce certainly has been disruptive. How did it become your specialty?
Pierre: I started focusing on this seven years ago. At that time, the organization had been dabbling in e-commerce but it was only about a third of my predecessor’s job. When I came in, I saw that we needed more focus on it.
E-commerce presents a unique blend of challenges when it comes to roles. In the old days, sales did its thing, marketing did its thing, and brands might meet up a couple times a year to collaborate. But in the digital and e-commerce worlds, sales and marketing are braided together. Because I had a lot of industry experience on the finance, brand, shopper sales and retail channel sides, I was able to marry them all together, bring it into the e-commerce world and influence the organization.
What did the competitive landscape look like back then?
Pierre: Early on, we saw that Amazon and Walmart were focused on the “spearfishing” side of the equation. A “spearfishing” shopper goes to a dot-com looking for just one or two things. She types item names into a search bar, gets results, looks at enhanced content and compares ratings, and if she adds it to her cart it’s for doorstep delivery in a day or two. The majority of e-commerce outside of grocery and food is still spearfishing: electronics, books, sporting goods, fashion – you name it.
When we came into e-commerce, a few CPGs like Kimberly-Clark and P&G were advanced on the spearfishing side because they were in a category like diapers, where shoppers buy one SKU a lot, that had tipped fast and heavily to online. And while spearfishing is interesting in a few of our grocery categories like granola bars, we could see that our bread and butter was going to be the “full basket” side: Shoppers buying 50 items at a time for seven dinners and school lunches for the kids, a couple of breakfasts and maybe a Super Bowl party.
At that time, full basket mainly meant Peapod, or Fresh Direct, or ShopRite from Home. Most of the brick-and-mortar traditional grocers were hesitant, worrying about the higher costs and that it might be margin dilutive or require new technology, talent and systems to invest in. But when a disrupter like Amazon announced that it was purchasing Whole Foods, it really accelerated the industry.
Were the bigger e-commerce players reaching out to the General Mills of the world or was it vice versa?
Pierre: Back then, it was us reaching out to them and saying, “We think we can help and be an effective partner for you.” But initially, even at traditional grocers, the e-commerce teams were staffed with folks who understood technology but didn’t necessarily understand food. Winning in food is a category-by-category game. The way you shop cereal is very different from how you shop yogurt or soup or granola bars.
With our food expertise, we could say, “We can help make these categories more shoppable online … let’s work out what that should look like.” And we found that, even at large retailers like Walmart, if we just approached things with a “How can we optimize categories” attitude, they were very willing and collaborative.
The inner workings of Amazon still seem mysterious to outsiders. What’s it like in there?
Pierre: Amazon operates at a different pace than everybody else. The biggest corporate sin at Amazon is to move slowly. They don’t worry about making mistakes, and that’s taught us to accelerate what we do. The approach at big traditional CPG manufacturers used to be, “Just don’t be wrong.” The world now is all about how fast you can learn. The new paradigm is, “You’ll make a lot of mistakes – just make ‘em fast, make ‘em small and move on.”
I once typed “macaroni & cheese” into Amazon and brands I’d never heard of – none of them Kraft – came out on top. Is online dangerous to established brands?
Pierre: Unlike in-store where you always have your shelf space, in the online world the more you sell the better your shelf space becomes. When we first came in and started really driving e-commerce, it took a little while to evangelize that the spoils will go to those who drive a first-mover advantage. Yes, there will be some risk because we’ll be doing some things differently, but if we’re willing to lean in, there will be significant advantages.
Where does e-commerce fit into General Mills’ organizational structure?
Pierre: I lead our E-Commerce Center of Excellence. We don’t look at e-commerce as a vertical silo or function; it’s really horizontal and requires all of our functional areas to think and act differently – sales, brand building, marketing, consumer insights, supply chain. I’ve got cross-functional players on my team working on how to partner differently across all of our functional areas. There is a lot of internal evangelization going on to accelerate our rate of change
How is your e-commerce team organized?
Pierre: I’m fortunate to have what I consider the best team in the industry. Even our most junior people have an advantage because they are native to this space. I tell them to be bold and share their instincts because, frankly, they should have the largest voice in the organization when it comes to e-commerce because they understand it better.
And while it’s a cliche, it’s still true: E-commerce is the ultimate team sport because it requires driving expertise across functions. We have a blend of skillsets, and it’s a bit of a balancing act because part of what we do is evangelize internally for changing how we operate. So we need internal folks to help us pivot and change, and external talent as we think about new technologies and ways of thinking.
There are a lot of technology experts and programmers on the team because at an Amazon, Walmart or Kroger we aren’t only talking to their merchandising folks, we’re talking to their engineering or product teams about fixing their site experiences. It’s a whole new discipline emerging.
How does an outsider – a CPG – work with a retailer’s dot-com team without it becoming “too many cooks”?
Pierre: The biggest difference between the in-store game and online e-commerce is that there’s a lot more data. That means you have the ability to make changes in real time, and you can do a lot more iteration. And you need to do a lot of iteration because this isn’t an environment where you can ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. So there’s constant A/B testing to see the different paths consumers take and what appeals to them. How does the site’s left-hand navigation for “breakfast” work? Where should brand X’s product page fit in? The data drives the conversation.
The in-store environment is an individual item-and-price game dominated by one-off displays and TPRs. But in the online world, if you collaborate, you can get to a solutions game: “Hello. I’m not here to just sell you an item when what you’re really looking for is dinner and, oh, chicken is on sale. Well, here are seven things you can do with chicken and why not let me put all those items together and show you a recipe and, hey, just click here to add them all to your cart.” We are now able to tie the center store to the perimeter.
Does this suggest an even bigger future for co-marketing?
Pierre: I’d say so. In our portfolio, for example, think about Old El Paso and the need, when making tacos or fajitas, to shop the entire store for shredded cheese, refried beans, taco mix, ground beef, lettuce. They are rarely laid out together in any brick-and-mortar store, but online we can merchandise it together, call it “Taco Night” and make it seamless for consumers.
But right now, we’re still just leaning in across our retailer landscape and trying to figure out where we can take things. It’s early days for the online, full-basket shopping experience, and some things are still a little clunky.
How closely do you track brick-and-mortar vs. e-commerce metrics?
Pierre: If you look at it industry-wide, online CPG sales are somewhere in the 3%-4% range right now. Small, but growing exponentially and a significant part of the annual growth plan. A lot of industry consultants will tell you that as much as 50% of annual growth is being sourced online, so 10 years from now, that 3%-4% could grow to 20%. I think that might be a high-side estimate, but there’s no doubt it will be a significant part of growth going forward.
A lot of shopper marketing agencies are bullish on “voice shopping” through personal assistants like Alexa and Google Home. What’s your point of view?
Pierre: I would say – and remember, we’re mostly concerned with the full-basket side of the equation – that while voice will be a component, I don’t necessarily think of it as the be-all and end-all of shopping. But list building … reordering … “Alexa! I’m out of Cheerios!” – yes, voice will play a significant role in that.
Our portfolio has a lot of baking and meals, so we think a lot about how to leverage the Internet of Things. You can go to Alexa and ask “Betty Crocker” for cooking advice. We’re also spending a lot of time with tech startups to see which ones can address certain problems we and our retailers need to solve.
Some retailers worry that shoppers will lock in their digital shopping lists and kill impulse and trial.
Pierre: That’s one of the issues we’re trying to solve with retailers right now. Shoppers can potentially become anchored to their past purchase history. There’s a huge advantage to brands that get on early in terms of repeat purchases.
But the opposite’s a problem as well: Consumers complain that they keep getting the same old stuff, which means making the same old meals. So we’re trying to figure out how to inspire shoppers by making things more browse-able. The key there will be personalization. The average retailer sells 40,000 items, but the average household only buys 600 of those 40,000 items; the challenge is that it’s a different 600 for every household. Conquering this will take the industry to the next level. But we’re only in the early innings of this.
Is mobile the future of e-commerce interfaces?
Pierre: It’s predominantly going to be mobile. It allows you to shop when and wherever you are. But think about cereal in-store: It’s a 70-foot section with 191 SKUs in an aisle that you’ll walk down in about 92 seconds. Now, think about what that cereal aisle looks like on your desktop, and then on your smart phone, and then on an Amazon Echo Show. The ability to visually browse and see variety gets less and less.
Again, this is not a problem for spearfishing, but it is if you’re buying two week’s worth of groceries for a family. As the full-basket grocery side emerges, this is a fundamental problem that we are going to have to lock arms together and solve.