Accelerating Today, Owning Tomorrow with Jess Akers

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Jess Akers is a leader in commerce innovation at General Mills, the parent brand to some of the most well-known food and CPG brands on the planet. The continued growth of e-commerce and the changing expectations of consumers in the digital age has kept her at the forefront of change in the food sector. By applying agile marketing techniques and technology to learn at the pace and scale of global business, she is on a quest to provide connected consumer experiences.

In this episode, Jess shares about her role at General Mills, as well as her career journey to becoming a leader in commerce innovation. She discusses the importance of continued innovation and how she takes advantage of every opportunity to make sure the brands she works with will be competitive in the market.

Today’s episode is hosted by Diana Fryc of Retail Voodoo, connect with her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianafryc/

Gooder Podcast

Accelerating Today, Owning Tomorrow with Jess Akers

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TAKEAWAYS

Roles and responsibilities as a leader of commerce innovation
The importance of innovation and technology and how these things provide a competitive edge
The milestones and lessons learned throughout her career journey

ABOUT THE GUEST

Jess Akers
Global Commerce Innovation Manager, General Mills
LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/jessica-akers-85b31085
Website: https://www.generalmills.com

CHAPTERS

00:00 | Introduction
03:14 | General Mills
04:13 | Commerce Innovation
05:20 | Finding Ways to Think Different
08:18 | The E-Commerce Evolution
10:51 | Speed Learning
13:54 | Changing & Impacting the Marketplace
16:43 | Career Achievements
22:16 | Inspirational Advice
27:09 | Tech Trends to Watch
28:37 | Learn More about Jess Akers and General Mills

This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo. A brand consultancy focused on building, growing, and revitalizing brands in the food, beverage, health, and wellness industries. If you are ready to find a partner that will help your business create a high-impact strategy that gives your brand an advantage, please visit retail-voodoo.com/contact to set up a discovery call today.

Produced by Heartcast Media.
www.heartcastmedia.com

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Transcript:

Diana: Hi, Diana Fryc here. I’m the host of The Gooder podcast, where I get to talk with the powerhouse women in the food, beverage, and wellness industries about their journeys to success and their insights on the market. This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo. Retail Voodoo is a brand development firm. Our clients include Starbucks, kind RCI, PepsiCo, Nike, and many other market leaders. We provide strategic brand marketing and design services for brands in these spaces. If your goal is to increase market share, drive growth, or disrupt the marketplace with new and innovative thinking. Give us a call and let’s talk. Or visit retail voodoo dot com that’s retail hyphen video dot com. Well, I am very excited to introduce Ms. Her formal name is Jessica, but we’re going to call her Jess for today. Jess Akers, is a global leader of commerce innovation at General Mills, the CPG giant, and owner of some of the most loved food brands in the world. Her career has kept her at the forefront of change in the food industry through the rise of e-commerce and the evolution of consumer expectations in the digital world. She is on a mission to enable more connected consumer experiences using agile marketing technology to learn at the pace and scale across the global business. Now, if we have a chance, because General Mills is a pretty big name, we might be able to talk about a couple of brand campaigns. I hope I got that right, Jess. That was done for fiber one or old El Paso, which Carter Jensen, who connected us, was a super fan of and is the reason why he reached out to me in the first place. So perhaps we can talk about that. And then I just want to thank Carter, like advocates like you. Thank you so much for raising and elevating women leaders like Jess in the marketplace. We need you in order to keep growing. Thank you. So welcome, Jess. How are you today?

 

Jess: Thanks so much. Very excited to be here. Thank you for having me. Yes, thanks. Also to Carter, as you said. So great to get the chance to speak to you today.

 

Diana: Yeah. So tell us where you are located right now.

 

Jess: So I’m based in London. I’m part of the General Mills Organization, which most people probably know of big global food companies. So I’m in a global role. So I’m based in London, but I’m part of an organization which is based out of the U.S.

 

Diana: Sure. Okay. Well, let’s talk about that. This is my first question. I kind of feel funny asking this of multinationals so well-known, but I’m going to ask it anyways for some consistency. Tell us a little bit about General Mills and what is General Mills up to these days. Kind of in the but that can we could spend hours on that but kind of in a bigger picture cause.

 

Jess: Yeah, so I mean most people know General Mills for its brands, loads of really famous brands in the U.S., you know, from Cheerios and Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms to, you know, a lot of massive global brands as well. Older pasta, Betty Crocker, niche valley could go on. So loads of really interesting brands are working on a real mix there and yeah General Mills I think there’s a lot going on at the moment. As with most manufacturers, I think in the food industry, I feel like this is probably one of the most interesting times in good and bad ways to be in this space. So a lot of opportunity, a lot of change, and also a lot of difficulties. So yeah, definitely an interesting, interesting place to be and you know, a really interesting place to be learning at the moment.

 

Diana: Well, that makes it doubly so when we’re going to talk about your title, Global Ecom Innovation Manager. So for the rest of us, what does that mean? What do you do within General Mills?

 

Jess: So we’re a small, lean team, which we sit centrally in the organization, and our role really is to sort of own what’s next in the commerce space. So whether that’s e-commerce or what we’re referring to these days as sort of more connected commerce experiences, which you sort of go from traditional marketing and brand experiences and trying to connect that with opportunities to purchase. So we’re really trying to trailblaze in space and help the rest of the business find those things that are going to unlock growth in the future, which is an awesome place to be.

 

Diana: Yes, that is wonderful. So now this role is very interesting. And you have been with General Mills for eight, nine years now and prior to that had a little bit had a few other roles. I’m curious about your path into this role. I don’t know if you created it or if you were brought into it, but. I would love to know. Like, what takes somebody from Land Securities to Ecom?

 

Jess: Yeah, of course. Yeah. Most of my career has been at General Mills, which has been brilliant, with so many opportunities and such a big organization. I’ve done some internships and some other roles before, which were in sort of very different industries, but ultimately sort of led me into CPG through and through studying French actually. University, university, French in business.

 

Diana: Oh, you’re kidding.

 

Jess: Yeah, because my first job was in a play business, which is, oh, yogurt-based out of France. So I had to be in a French-speaking role. I was doing a lot of product innovation, which meant I was very connected to our factories and our teams that were based out of France. So that was sort of my in a really interesting sort of start to a career in CPG starting and marketing and sort of consumer insights then sort of leading to new product development, which was a really cool insight into food. I got to go to some of the factories which if anyone has a chance ever go to a food backyard, right?

 

Diana: Yes. Oh, yes. Probably my funniest of all the jobs when we’re working on brands, my favorite is to be on the floor and just see the magic.

 

Jess: It’s incredible the scale and the technical expertise that’s involved. It’s pretty amazing. So yeah, that, that was sort of my entry point. And then I’ve, I’ve taken several different sorts of opportunities within the business. I’ve worked in our sales organization, I’ve worked for several years in e-commerce specifically at a really interesting time when it was really taking off from being a really tiny portion of our business to something much more significant.

 

Diana: That’s the truth.

 

Jess: Yeah, exactly. I was launching an Amazon business, working with some sort of peer players in the U.K. I also led our eCommerce business in Australia for a couple of years as well.

 

Diana: And.

 

Jess: And yeah, sort of that experience I suppose position me while too, to take on this really new and exciting role which was very newly created with it, with a focus on, on the future, on what’s next and having that kind of global visibility to make sure that we can capture all the learnings and all the opportunities and scale them as appropriate across the globe.

 

Diana: Hmm. I love it. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the role, then. I know when you and I were preparing, we talked about some things that were important for you and that you thought would be really great for our listeners to listen to. And when we talk about the world, well, the changing world of multinationals like General Mills, now AECOM, as you said, a very interesting time to be in e-comm has become a very important channel in the last several years. And I would love to hear from you. And the purpose of commerce, and innovation within your organization, at least as much as you can share.

 

Jess: Yeah, of course. So, I mean, the true purpose of our team and it’s really sort of we split it into two, two main areas. One is accelerating today. So it’s making sure that all of our brands have the capabilities and the technologies that they need to take advantage of every opportunity that there is in the digital space, e-commerce, and connected to our brand experiences. So that’s a massive focus just to make sure that we can enable as much use and adoption of those tools as possible. And then the second pillar is around owning tomorrow, and that’s where we really focus on the future, on innovation, and do a lot of research and have conversations with some really, really interesting people to try and plan for what’s next and get ahead of that so that we have some control over that in the future.

 

Diana: Or at least be prepared for it. I am curious. Inquiring minds, I wonder, are you guys looking at virtual environments like the metaverse? Is that something on your radar that you guys are actively thinking about?

 

Jess: Absolutely. I’m definitely one of our focus areas and it’s such an interesting space, constantly changing and so, so much to learn. So yeah, that’s been something we’ve all been upskilling ourselves on and connecting with people and great, great experts so that we can learn more and basically have the intention of, of, of studying, setting a strategy or some guidance for the total business and what that might look like. So yeah, a lot of exciting stuff to come. I think the world will be a bit of a different place even a few years from now.

 

Diana: Yeah, I can imagine just at the rate of change in the last two years. What I mean, is two years from now, I don’t think we will recognize each other. I’m just we’re all accustomed to change at this point and at a fast rate.

 

Jess: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s going to be very exciting to see what is possible in that short space of time. That’s probably never been a point where so much has changed so quickly.

 

Diana: I agree. Well, so talking about changing landscapes, you know, traditionally multinationals have been slow movers when it comes to innovation, whether it’s on product or technology operations, etc. But as you’ve mentioned, things are changing, especially at General Mills. Can you talk about fast learning in your organization and how it’s impacting how you build brands right now?

 

Jess: Yeah, of course. So you’re right. I mean, big organizations are big, big beasts, right? You know, a big shift to turn takes a lot with a lot of different people who are experts in their fields. But aligning that and getting everyone on board can be a challenge. And that’s an advantage that smaller businesses have to move at pace. So that’s something that we’ve seen and we’ve looked to small and digitally native brands and thought, you know, what can we learn from them? So we’ve tried to build some tools and really, really excited to talk about that a little bit, some tools which enable us to react like a startup, like a, you know, a direct-to-consumer brand, for example, where we can, we can do things on a really small scale for very, very little cost and very quickly. And then we can learn. We can really learn, and we can scale those things up if they work, but we fail a lot as well. And that’s okay. That’s part of the process. I think if we weren’t failing, then we wouldn’t be doing enough then, right? Risky and dangerous, interesting things. So that’s our approach. And I think that the team that I’m in has been really focused on enabling that approach for the rest of our business. We have some amazing brand experience teams across the organization who really own what the brands are doing. But what we’re trying to do is give them the tools so that they can do things quickly and learn and make sure that it’s perfect for their consumers, perfect for that audience, and make it as good as it can be.

 

 Diana: Well, so what I’m hearing is there has definitely been a cultural shift, right? Because failing is, you know, most orgs your size are risk averse, some more than others. But the risk is usually because the investment in risk tends to be much bigger. So it sounds like if you’re adopting some of these entrepreneurial concepts and scaling things down and moving more quickly, the failures don’t feel so. Big. I don’t know what the word is, but am I catching like, is that what’s happening or is it? Yeah, I guess the question. Yeah.

 

Jess: Yeah. I mean, I think failing, failing smart is, is kind of how I think about it because you know, if you fail but you don’t learn anything, then that doesn’t help anyone. But if you fail, then you have some parameters around how much you’re investing in the information or the data that you’re going to get from that experiment. Then even if you do fail, it doesn’t matter because you’ve got learning and that’s what’s important at the end of the day. So I think going about it in the right way means that it can’t really be a failure. It’s going to be an advantage in the long run.

 

Diana: Yeah. Good. That’s wonderful. Hmm. And in this. In this ecosystem. Of course, we cannot forget our consumers. How do you see the ecosystem of the consumer-to-brand and brand-to-consumer impacting the way you plan to connect the connected commerce experience?

 

Jess: Yeah, it’s a great question and I feel like so much has changed in that space. You know, when I think about it as a consumer myself or from what I’ve seen working in the food industry, I think that the point of discovery to the point of purchase is closer than it’s ever been before. I mean, I think gone are the days where, you know, it’s discovering products in the supermarket. It’s the main place where people do that. And, you know, it’s the ability to go from a discovery, say, on a social platform to adding to your basket. And one click has just completely collapsed that funnel. And I think that’s so interesting and there are so many opportunities that brands could have taken advantage of when those are the expected expectations of consumers these days, a few clicks are going to be too many for a brand to get that conversion.

 

Diana: That’s funny.

 

Jess: Yeah, it’s really changed.

 

Diana: Do you have an example where you have applied that thinking to one of your brands and saw an increase in sales?

 

Jess: Yeah. So I mean, I think a really amazing enabler of social commerce, which is, which is, you know, one of the most interesting, I think, direct routes to purchase these days is, is having a sort of direct to consumer technology. And I’ll talk a little bit about that because I think a lot of people think direct-to-consumer is a channel to sell products, and ship a box from the company to the end consumer. But we think about it a little bit differently at General Mills, and we sort of have three categories of how to approach it. So we do directly to consumers to learn, which is sort of small scale experiments where we, you know, we launch new products, we get direct feedback from consumers which is just the super interesting use of that technology. Then we do brand experiences directly to consumers, and that’s where I think the social commerce unlock is so interesting. And you know, for example, a team in the US with Cinnamon Toast Crunch, built a Tik-Tok storefront using a Shopify direct-to-consumer integration, which meant that they could sell merchandise. So hoodies and t-shirts and things like that, which are discoverable on TikTok, are a really, really cool experience and a really easy checkout. So that kind of brand engagement is such an interesting use of the kind of technology and agile marketing technology that we’re helping the organization to adopt.

 

Diana: Hmm. Interesting. I like that. Okay. So much there. And you cover so much territory. Is your team responsible for all of the brands within General Mills?

 

Jess: So I say we’re not responsible for all the brands, but we work completely across the business. So we’ll partner with any team who wants to work with us, basically who needs support with this. We have some amazing allies who we work with a lot and we’re always trying to socialize our work and see who wants to engage with us so that we can spread those learnings further.

 

Diana: Interesting. Okay. Thank you for that. Wow. So lots of innovation. You guys are constantly moving a million moving parts, literally and figuratively. That is super interesting to hear. And it makes me feel good to see that the adoption rate is just accelerated to the point where we’re moving as fast as the little guys, so to speak. I think that’s going to be great for consumers at the end of the day.

 

Jess: Yeah, that’s definitely the intention. I think if a brand can have the tools to not only do it quickly and cheaply but be able to react to the market, it’s such an advantage that small brands have when they have fast decision-making, you know, simpler processes. That’s an advantage to get things out the door in front of consumers. So if our tools can help brands to act more quickly, then that’s going to end up with better experiences for consumers. I agree. I think reactive marketing is so important these days, but to sort of connect with consumers and seem relevant, I think that’s part of what we’re trying to help the brands with as well.

 

Diana: That the strategic, proactive, and strategic reactive working together is that ecosystem that we talked about earlier. Hey.

 

Jess: Yeah, that’s right.

 

Diana: Love it. Wow. Wonderful. So I’m curious as you look back on the time that you’ve been with General Mills so far. Or maybe this could be even outside of General Mills. But I’m curious what milestones or what moments are you most proud of? You may have more than one.

 

Jess: Yeah. So I feel like this, this current role is probably the most exciting I have ever been to be working at General Mills. You know, it’s always exciting to be at the forefront of what’s happening next. I think it’s a great milestone sort of for me personally moving internationally to work in different markets. It was such a learning curve to sort of connect with different retailers and learn the different dynamics of markets. Find out what’s important to consumers there. So. So, yeah, my move to Australia was a really exciting point in my career and taught me a lot as well.

 

Diana: Wow. So I mean, this ties into the next question that I was going to ask. It’s but I’m going to ask this 1/1, and that is there are many people that work on global brands, or their brands go international, or however, you might look at it. It sounds to me like it’s not the same as literally picking up and moving into another market and learning the brand from that location. Is that correct? Is that what I’m hearing?

 

Jess: Yeah. I mean, our brands have a lot of friends that are worldwide, but there are some really interesting differences, actually. I mean, if you take old El Paso, for example, in the UK, it’s all about fajitas. Everyone loves the heat. Is that the focus of the brand? That’s what the heat of Friday is. That is a huge activation campaign that in the US or in Australia it’s all about tacos. I mean actually, the US is probably a bit, a bit more.

 

Diana: That’s funny.

 

Jess: Interesting. But yeah, I think there are small differences like that, but also just in how, how consumers sort of engage with their brands and how they think about them, how they use them. So it’s interesting to see how culture affects the sort of perception of a brand or its position.

 

Diana: And I wonder if just even being in the environment with people who are native to the country gives you a different perspective that you might not otherwise have? Yes.

 

Jess: Absolutely. Yeah.

 

Diana: Okay. Okay. So I’m just thinking, you know, with everybody being remote. And being virtual. I’m like in my head, I’m thinking, Do we lose the opportunity? Working for a global brand, if we don’t physically pick up and move, do we lose some learning opportunities simply because it’s easier to work from where you are on a journey? Do you see what I’m asking?

 

Jess: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, there are probably things that we missed by not being sort of, you know, physically in contact or exposed to a brand in a certain market, but probably goes the other way as well.

 

Diana: Yeah.

 

Jess: So we’re able to experience brands that we’re not close to. Yeah, the digital world makes that feel very real, even if it’s not. Which I think is really interesting.

 

Diana: Yeah. And in particular, if somebody is interested in being in the US market and they’re based out of Australia and you are in the US, there’s probably some benefits to that the way you think. So I could see it both ways. Okay. So what advice, what advice would you give or do you find yourself giving people who might be following in your footsteps?

 

Jess: So. I would definitely say to grab every opportunity that comes your way and find some amazing allies. I’ve been really fortunate to have some brilliant leaders and mentors who have really pushed me to think more broadly than I would have done earlier in my career. I think a lot of people would probably say a similar thing even if you’re not completely clear on what you want next if someone can help you see what options are and can help you to get there. That’s such a gift. So I’m very grateful to the people who have helped me with that all along the way. Yeah. And to just stay curious, keep looking, keep pushing, pushing forwards, and never think that, oh, that’s just how we do things around here. It won’t change. I think things can change even when they seem like they can’t. So it’s just having sort of the energy and the sort of inspiration to do that.

 

Diana: Absolutely. Well, what’s next for you, or what’s next? What are you working on next or General Mills? There’s a lot of ways we can ask the next question.

 

Jess: Yeah. So I mean, there’s loads of exciting stuff on the part, and probably can’t talk to all of it. But right now we’re really excited about where all of the sorts of technology that we’ve leveraged so far can take us. I think this sort of agile approach has enabled a lot so far, though. We don’t stop there. We’re sort of looking at some proprietary technology that can sort of take us even further into helping our brands connect with consumers, which is very exciting. It says it is a really interesting place to be.

 

Diana: Wow. Wonderful. Wow. Jess, I have really enjoyed our conversation and our planning up until this point. Our time is almost up. But I do have a couple of questions I like to ask everybody. And the first one is, are there any other women leaders or rising stars out there in our industry or not that you would like to elevate or simply admire for the work that they’re doing right now?

 

Jess: It’s a good question and a tricky one. I feel like there are so many good answers to that. Always pressure to have a great answer. I mean, I would say there are a lot of people that I worked with directly who I admire so much. Without sounding to me sort of brown-nosing, I would say that Dana McNabb leads our Strategy and Growth segment at General Mills and has always been a bit of an inspiration to me in just how she approaches business and life and how she treats the people around her. I think because she’s a pretty amazing female role model for a lot of people at General Mills across the world. So I would definitely recognize her as a response there. I’m just trying to think more outside as well. I remember being really impressed actually when I was earlier in my career hearing a woman called Henrietta Morrison speak. And she was the founder of a brand called Lily’s Kitchen, which is a great brand. And it was her story that was just so brilliantly told from the sort of her personal experience and creating the food for her, and her dog at home, and the journey that she went on to take that brand to two amazing heights that always stuck with me. I think I’ve always had a little bit of aspiration to start a business or do something entrepreneurial like that. So I have a lot of respect for people who have courage. I think it’s amazing. And a lot of the people they speak to on this podcast have been there. So yeah.

 

Diana: Yes. Well, I say 50% of our clients are entrepreneurial and the other 50%, of course, are midtable Thai. And what is always inspiring to me when I’m listening to these people is there’s a risk, and then there’s a risk where you put it all on the table. And man, let’s just take something that takes a passion and the power to believe and the hard in and really hard work. But the magic they create is pretty spectacular, don’t you agree?

 

Jess: I agree. And I think that comes through. That’s I think that what makes some brands is the story and the passion that goes into it obviously alongside the rest. But yeah, very inspiring.

 

Diana: Yes. Well so then along that route, I’m curious, what brands or trends do you keep your eye on and why?

 

Jess: I mean, trends, trends are so interesting. I am really intrigued by live streaming and live shopping.

 

Diana: Okay.

 

Jess: Such a big thing in the Asian markets and known across the world. So I think keeping an eye on how that develops. I know a lot of brands haven’t seen the success that they expected yet in North America or in Europe. But I wonder what will be the thing that makes that effective in the end. I mean, we’ve talked as well about the metaverse and web3 generally and how that’s going to change, how people experience brands and engage. So I think that’s a really interesting space to watch as well.

 

Diana: Who is web3? I don’t know where I’ve been sleeping, but I have not heard that or it hasn’t stuck. Thank you for that.

 

Jess: Web3. Every day everything with the metaverse cryptocurrency and beyond.

 

Diana: Thank you. Yeah, I learned one thing today. I can go back home. Okay. All right. Well, Mike, and as we have been talking with Jess Akers, global e-commerce, let me say that again. We’ve been talking with Jess Akers, global e-commerce innovation manager at General Mills. Jess, where can people learn more about you and maybe some of the work that you’re up to?

 

Jess: Of course, everyone is welcome to find me on LinkedIn. And yeah, sorry. Let me say that again. And you can find me on LinkedIn. Jessica Akers, you can feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I’m always happy to chat or learn more about the kind of things we’ve been working on at General Mills.

 

Diana: Okay. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I know it’s getting to be the end of your day and it’ll be good to go home or just relax from your work day. I’m so happy to have spent time with you and really look forward to seeing what you’re up to next.

 

Jess: Thank you so much, The Times. Great team.

 

Diana: Of course, and thank you listeners for your time today. If you enjoy this episode, please share it with a friend. Otherwise, have a great rest of your day and we’ll catch you next time on the Gooder podcast.

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Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

Connect with Diana