MINNEAPOLIS — A recent study from researchers at Harvard University found that individuals consuming at least 33 grams of whole grains a day cut their risk of premature death by 9% compared with those who barely ate any whole grains. This finding was positive news for the hot cereal industry, where 33 grams is about the equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal.
With science on their side, oatmeal makers have turned their attention to finding more ways to get the hot cereal into consumers’ hands. One company that is taking a non-traditional route to market is General Mills, Inc.
In December, the Minneapolis-based company published a case study about how its open innovation program sparked the launch of Nature Valley Bistro Cups oatmeal, which may be made in a Keurig machine. Keurig machines are part of the growing trend toward single-serve beverage brewers. In its most recent Kitchen Audit, The NPD Group peeked inside the pantries of American consumers to uncover trending ingredients, appliances and eating habits. Every three years, NPD surveys approximately 2,700 households on the cookware, utensils, foods and beverages kept on hand. An increase in pod-based coffee makers from 9% of households in 2011 to 23% in 2014 underscores the consumer desire for ingredients and products perceived as fresh.
General Mills hopes that consumer desire extends to oatmeal. While the company dabbled in hot oatmeal products in the early 1990s with Undercover Bears and Total Oatmeal Swirlers that simply required the addition of hot water, the idea behind Nature Valley Bistro Cups was to give consumers an entirely new way to make and enjoy hot oatmeal.
“Many consumers spend $2 to $3 for a cup of oatmeal from the drive-thru with their cup of coffee in the morning,” said Dena Strehlow, a 20-year R.&D. technology manager and innovation entrepreneur at General Mills. “This product would make having coffee and oatmeal more convenient, more affordable, and bring more utility to a kitchen appliance many consumers already own.”
Once General Mills’ innovation team began to think outside the box, realizing the single-serve brewers were not just for coffee, the ideas started flowing, she said.
“With more and more people using single-serve brewers, it only made sense for us to start looking at how consumers could use this appliance not just for beverages, but for food, too,” Ms. Strehlow said.
In a brainstorming session with a small group of 10 to 20 employees, Ms. Strehlow said she learned that many people already were using their single-serve brewing machine’s hot water for other things. They talked about the concept, generated feedback and sampled some early prototypes. Then, using General Mills’ open innovation network and tools, Ms. Strehlow said she turned to a leading flavor developer to create the optimal spice and flavor recipe for the oatmeal, and reached out to external supply chain partners to initiate conversations about packaging options.
With the prototype in hand, Ms. Strehlow said General Mills set up a “Lemonade Stand” in two Minneapolis-area retail outlets to demo and sell the product. The results were more than encouraging.
“It truly felt like a ‘state fair moment,’” she said. “Shortly after that, the store manager pulled me aside and said, ‘We have to carry your product.’ The success of the Lemonade Stand is a huge part of why the product went on to launch.”
General Mills eventually launched the Nature Valley Bistro Cups on Amazon.com — it sold out on the first day — and quickly gained distribution with other major retailers. The cups are now carried in more than 6,000 stores.
Available in two varieties, each serving of Nature Valley Bistro Cups Oatmeal includes a packet of oats, a packet of fruits and nuts, and a single-serve pod that, when inserted in a Keurig brewer, dispenses hot flavored liquid that cooks the dry ingredients.
The apple cinnamon almond flavor contains a blend of apples, cranberries, almonds and 100% whole grain oats. Each cup has 310 calories, 8 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. The brown sugar pecan variety has cherries, cranberries, pecans and 100% whole grain oats and contains 320 calories, 7 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per serving.
“Being first to market certainly has benefits, but it also comes with the responsibility to educate consumers,” said Brian Tockman, senior manager for new business models with General Mills 301 Inc., a new business development within General Mills, Inc. “Having our team interact directly with consumers in a real-world environment greatly improved our insight and intuition on the project — that’s how we prefer to work because we feel we can be smarter and deliver products that better match what consumers want.”
General Mills was the first company to launch a food product for a single-serve brewer, and Nature Valley Bistro Cups are still the only hot oatmeal available for the Keurig. But other companies are considering the possibilities. Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., in late 2013 unveiled plans to introduce Campbell’s Fresh-Brewed Soup K-Cup packs, a line of soup pods that work in Keurig coffee brewers, but so far has failed to launch the product.
The introduction of Nature Valley Bistro Cups oatmeal are just the latest way in which General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN) is challenging its teams to be more connected throughout the innovation process.
“Every day, new inventions are occurring outside of General Mills,” said Mike Hesler, Ph.D., G-WIN program at General Mills. “By combining the great skills we possess internally, with the creativity we can find outside, we can unlock many new sources of meaningful growth.”