A Conversation with Global Consumer Insights Senior Manager, Kaia Kegley 

Kaia Kegley brings consumers into the spotlight. She wants them to shine and be heard. For her, this lies at the heart of what inspires growth and what can truly set brands apart. She calls it “bringing the humanity” into the business and it’s something she, and her General Mills colleagues, take on as part of their corporate mission to serve the world by making food people love.

As Senior Manager of Global Consumer Insights, Kegley’s current role finds her bringing the humanity to General Mills’ marketing and innovation efforts within the cereal category. The cereal segment, which represents a sizeable portion of Mills’ 2016 $16.6 Billion revenue, includes among its ranks, the iconic Cheerios brand.

I recently met with Kegley to learn just how important the practice of building consumer empathy is to her and for the broader portfolio of General Mills’ brands.

Kaia Kegley, General Mills Senior Manager of Global Consumer Insights leverages empathy as a competitive advantage

Kaia Kegley, General Mills Senior Manager of Global Consumer Insights leverages empathy as a competitive advantage

Empathy Delivers Competitive Advantage

Empathy has seen a recent resurgence, with many brand marketers adopting the idea of empathy in words, if not in deeds. While for some it may be just the latest buzzword, for Kegley and General Mills, empathy has been a mainstay and part of their culture of learning and experimentation.

“Empathy is [a] legit way to get us focused on what really matters for our consumers. Certain industries are trending down and [are] challenged. In these moments, particularly, we need to seek new ways to approach problems.

There are so many products and messages out there competing for attention. Every brand is waving their hands and saying look at me. With empathy we have a competitive advantage.

When we can demonstrate ‘I get you’ to the consumer, we have a greater opportunity to break through and get that second look.”

And, the human element cannot be downplayed. “We are a consumer-first company. It’s our intention and not a buzzword for us. We put our business hats on every day and we also recognize we need to wear our human hats.”

And why does this focus on humanity matter so much?

For Kegley it comes down to our common need to be and feel understood. “You will learn more and understand more if you talk to someone as a person rather than a buyer or consumer. We help our decision makers understand our consumers as they are in real life and in their day-to-day, and not just how they think about brand A or brand B. It’s about connecting with people. This is what we want for our brands … to connect.”

Kegley offers the recent Totino’s brand advertising campaign as an example of empathy in action. The relevant yet quirky Couch Hard campaign was inspired by on-going engagement and conversations with a group of young adults over the course of many months. Getting to know them in their modes of downtime and play provided a new way for the brand to speak authentically and with humor.

Totino’s successful Couch Hard campaign was inspired by on-going engagement and conversations with a group of young adults over the course of many months.

In Search of Empathy Away From Desks and On Consumers’ Home Turf

General Mills’ and Kegley’s own approach to empathy is one of breaking down walls and getting close to the people who rely on their products. It requires teams to get out and away from desks and, instead, get into the spaces and the “turf” of consumers. The whole cross-functional team goes along for the ride - spending time in homes, cooking with families, in stores shopping with people, commuting with them, talking, listening and observing. 

According to Kegley, what consumers might tell you in traditional modes of research can be incredibly different from what they do. “[Consumers] have different aspirations -some of which can be coloring their responses to direct questions. We need to see this. We have to access their reality and marry that up with the aspirations they have in order to see the big picture.”

There is also the case to be made for the rational versus emotional mind in decision making and the pace at which consumers take action based on instinct and habit. “Consumers make thousands of decisions every day and 90% are made quickly from the gut. They can tell you why they do what they do but it’s not as rational as we like to think. It’s better to see that in action and to get closer to that more emotional, fast decision-making.” Kegley references the strong role empathy plays in categories such as snacks which need to fit with people’s more immediate, ‘gotta have it now’ moments.

“We have to know and have empathy for people’s lives beyond the food itself. The surround of who they are, the demands on their time, that push and pull. Those split second decisions when the pace is fast and on the go. 

Then we can innovate for real life.”

Be Warned, Empathy Can Get Messy

Setting expectations remains key to practicing empathy as does gaining comfort with the unknown. When out in the ‘real world’ with real people, face-to-face, team members must go with the flow and, as Kegley remarks, it can feel “a little messy.” “We need to go where consumers take us and that is the beauty of it. Consumers don’t necessarily have a linear approach. We might like it to be linear and straightforward, but it’s really not.” New questions come up, unanticipated ideas and learning, and that can feel chaotic. “There is no map so you have to explore and build the map as you go.”

Kegley notes that, “Out in the ‘real world’ with real people, face-to-face, team members must engage directly to build their own empathy.”

Kegley notes that, “Out in the ‘real world’ with real people, face-to-face, team members must engage directly to build their own empathy.”

Big Empathy Challenges? Time & Transfer

When asked for her thoughts on the biggest challenges to empathy, Kegley calls out two biggies: time and transfer.

First, it takes the investment in time to get to know and better understand consumers. As she notes, “Empathy is not instant. You can show it instantly but to develop it takes time. You can’t cram for an empathy test. You can’t just read a report and get it.” Of course, in business as in life there are always competing priorities which can make dedicating time to empathy difficult. The pace of business moves rapidly. Rather than a one-off project to gain a quick hit of empathy, companies who do it well play the long game. They infuse empathy practices throughout their yearly plan and allow the learning to build and continually inform their business decisions. “More frequent and even smaller interactions work well. [Empathy work] does not have to be a big production. I’ve found the on-going touch points with our consumers to work the best.” Kegley mentions seemingly small ways members of her team have come up with to keep that connection with consumers top-of-mind. One is starting off the work week by sharing a quote or other small, but powerful, reminder from a consumer. “It’s a quote of the week tied to an insight and a way to apply it. It can permeate. It can trigger memory. It can be that easy.”

Transfer refers to the challenge of bringing all the members of the team and key decision makers along the journey. Transferring empathy can be tricky and that is where she looks for help from her partners. It’s not always feasible to bring the whole team into every consumer interaction.

“It’s hard to transfer that knowledge and that intuition after the fact. A PowerPoint report, by itself, won’t get the job done. We work with our partners to help us re-create the sights and sounds of those moments with consumers.

We do this through the senses … audio, video, storytelling … to bring us back into their lives when we are in the office.” She also relies on partners to bring an external point-of-view and expertise with different examples and new sources of information. “My partners help me and my team stay fresh and avoid any ruts in our own thinking.”

Empathy Gives You Permission to Stop Solving Problems and Start Listening

For Kegley, it’s empathy that helps bring the humanity into the brand and, in turn, gives the brand a greater opportunity to make an authentic connection.

What advice would she give to those looking to build more empathy with their own consumers? For starters, stop seeking THE answer to a problem and, instead, apply yourself to listening.

“I often say that we’re all just people. When we leave work, we go to our own homes where we make our own food and care for our own families. That’s what our consumers are trying to do too. When we stop thinking about what we’re going to do with the insights, we hopefully find and just listen and take it all in. It becomes much easier to find our consumer truths and connect with them. Giving ourselves permission to listen and NOT solve problems can open up a whole new level of understanding. It’s this understanding that will make problem solving that much easier once we’re back at the office.”

Ignite 360 regularly partners with General Mills on consumer insight and empathy initiatives to help build deeper connections between their portfolio of brands and the consumers who rely on them.

For more information on the principles and practice of Empathy including our Empathy Camp workshops, Join the conversation on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.