Gayle Fuguitt, the General Mills consumer insights VP, reflects on 30 years at the forefront of clientside research as she takes early retirement.
By the time you read this Gayle Fuguitt will have left General Mills, where she has worked for 32 years. The vice president of consumer insights for one of the world’s biggest food companies took early retirement on 1 August but she won’t be disappearing. She’s already a regular fixture on the research conference circuit and plans to remain so. “Just getting up and leaving is not appropriate for me,” she says. “I feel like if I did that I might be letting some people down.”
Not ‘some people’ – a whole industry. Fuguitt has been a tireless champion of the need for research to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant to companies. And she doesn’t just preach it – she lives it too. Her approach to research has won many converts within General Mills, allowing Fuguitt to have a career most researchers can only dream of. To lose her now would be a shame. She still has plenty left to teach those looking to follow in her footsteps.
“I’ve just had the best possible career,” she says. “I got to sit on the board of a dotcom company from 1999 to 2009. Within General Mills, I was able to be at the management team table for my entire career and I’ve been able to get my team at the management table in every area of the business.”
What she calls one of her “real highlights” came a year ago, when she was invited to give a presentation to an audience of 80 stock analysts at a General Mills investor day event. “That was absolutely thrilling,” she says. “That’s really a voice at the company table – at the global table – because these analysts, they’re trading stock while you’re speaking.”
Not bad for a researcher – although that’s not strictly how Fuguitt would define herself. She is “a business person first, not just the person with the research answer”. “I have always had a really clear sense of how important the [research] function could be and how valuable I thought our ideas could be in helping grow the business,” she says. But for research to achieve its full potential, Fuguitt realised early on, the needs of the business rather than the practicalities of the research process had to be placed front and centre.
“It’s about having a conversation, back and forth, about what the company’s needs are and what they are looking for,” she says. “We start every year in a dialogue with company presidents about what their biggest business issues are. We don’t say, ‘Right, these are our research initiatives – let’s talk through them.’”
What Fuguitt has built within General Mills is a team that acts as a centre for learning and experimentation. The learning isn’t just about consumers – though that is a big part of it. It’s also there to learn how the business functions and to come up with new research approaches that meet the requirements of the company.
“What we’ve done in the way we’ve structured the organisation and the career path is to allow people to look at the business from different vantage points,” Fuguitt says. “It’s about giving researchers the opportunity to develop a great research technique and then go and look at how it stacks up from the perspective of the Cheerios product manager, from the standpoint of corporate growth or the standpoint of shopper insight.”
“I have always had a clear sense of how important the research function could be in helping grow the business”
Fuguitt’s philosophy for an effective research function was clearly shaped by the path her own career took. She was 23 and fresh out of graduate school when she joined General Mills as an analyst in 1980, working her way up to market research manager, then taking senior leadership positions within both the Yoplait and Big G cereal divisions from the late 80s to the late 90s. By 1997, when she was appointed vice president of global consumer insights, she’d had 17 years to learn what General Mills needed from its research team and set about putting that into practice. If the importance of research can be measured by the amount of money spent on it, Fuguitt’s budget of $150m is a ringing endorsement of the work she and her team do.
In part her success can be attributed to the way she has kept the research function in step with the march of technology. The dotcom Fuguitt mentioned is a reference to the joint venture online research company InsightTools that General Mills set up with MarketTools. “The research organisation was the first to jump on board when the company decided that it needed to have an internet strategy,” says Fuguitt. Within a year 85% of General Mills’ research work was online. “We definitely reinvented our techniques through the internet,” she says.
The next great reinvention would come in response to social media, but it’s proving to be a continual process of change. Where one partner was enough during the first digital revolution, Fuguitt says General Mills is working with multiple partners this time around. “Technology is changing the research capabilities so quickly that the agency you think is doing the best research today won’t be the same one tomorrow. We have to have people that are focused on what is best in class globally at any given point in time.”
And on top of the technological changes, Fuguitt says social media alters the nature of research. “Market research used to be what I would refer to as a one-way conversation – it was us asking and consumers telling,” she says. “We’d ask them for their thoughts on our brownie mix, say, and other brownie mixes they might use, totally out of context. Now we might start by looking at who is having conversations about dessert. We’ll still ask questions but it’s also about us observing consumers and them engaging with us.
“So what we have now is a three-way discussion going on about the role of dessert in consumers’ lives and where brownies fit – and there’s a lot of magic in those organic conversations.”
Much of the opportunity in social media is about following the consumer conversation and responding in real time, Fuguitt says. “We did some work asking our management what they were looking for from us and one of the points they raised was the issue of speed versus precision. The point wasn’t that they didn’t want precision; the issue is that we sometimes get carried away with precision and we don’t have an answer ready when it’s needed.”
For many people, keeping up with the social media conversation is a full-time job, especially those working in corporate communications. The challenge for a research team is to keep one eye on the here and now and the other on the threats and opportunities that are on the horizon. Dealing with these twin demands is partly about having a broad portfolio of solutions, Fuguitt says, but researchers also require, “bifocal vision”.
“When we defined the skills that future researchers needed to have we said bifocal vision was one of them. Agility too, and listening skills, business acumen, championing action, interpersonal skills and communications skills are what’s needed,” she says.
Fuguitt calls this her “legacy”. “This is the belief structure that I’ve left the group with,” she says.
She talks with pride about her replacement, Jeanine Bassett, from within General Mills’ research group. “I’m extremely proud that my successor comes from a research background,” she says. “It’s a point of pride that Jeanine actually had the qualifications to be selected by senior management and I suppose it’s the ultimate endorsement that a researcher is able to do this job because one of the trends that I see in the industry is that leadership is coming from the chief marketing officer arena or other functions like finance or IT.
“Five or ten years ago General Mills might have gone outside to replace me. In the course of my career they went outside and found somebody to lead the function instead of promoting from inside. So to me, Jeanine’s appointment is a sign of how far the value of the function has come.”