Mark Addicks is a global branding expert who has risen through the ranks of one of the world’s consumer giants, General Mills, to become its senior vice president and chief marketing officer. He also has a growing collection of imaginary friends.

Addicks’ stable of fictional pals includes Josh, an eight-year-old who reminds the food executive of his own nine-year-old son, a child who has one foot in the world of uninhibited child’s play and the other in adolescence. And then there’s Charlie, another young boy “whose world … is influenced by Harry Potter and Pokémon … [at an] age where kids are starting to imagine for themselves what it would be like to be powerful.”

Josh and Charlie may be imaginary, but they have helped make the Minneapolis-based manufacturer of brands such as Cheerios cereal and Pillsbury biscuits into a highly profitable company in very real dollars, even as the global economy slides into a worsening recession. The two are what Addicks and his marketing team at General Mills call their “brand champions” — Josh for the snack food Fruit by the Foot and Charlie for the iconic cereal Lucky Charms. These fictional characters serve as a guide to executives for how to not only invent a marketing campaign, but also create an enthusiastic community and promote an entire lifestyle around a consumer product.

“We give him a name, give him a face and understand his perspective on the world,” said Addicks, explaining the importance of the brand champion concept at General Mills.

Addicks, who joined General Mills in 1988, built the Yoplait yogurt brand and introduced Frosted Cheerios before becoming a senior executive. Prior to joining General Mills, Addicks, who graduated from the University of Texas and earned an MBA from Harvard, led marketing programs for Anderson, Clayton & Co., a food products firm based in Houston.

General Mills’ branding strategy is more focused on identifying and then winning the hearts and minds of potential consumers than on traditional sales metrics. This unconventional approach has clearly bolstered the bottom line for General Mills. In its most recent quarterly report for the three months that ended in August, the food giant posted revenues of $3.5 billion, a sharp rise from $3.07 billion a year earlier and one that exceeded the expectations of industry analysts. The outstanding results have been reflected in General Mills’ shares: In October it was just one of less than 30 stocks in the Standard and Poor’s 500 to show a gain in 2008. The stock continued to show gains through mid-November.

A Brand Powerhouse

General Mills’ success in branding and marketing is notable because of the raw number of products that the company delivers to supermarket shelves, each seeking its own unique consumer identity. There is a long track record of success: When Advertising Age listed its top-10 brand icons of the 20th century, three were owned by General Mills — the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant and Betty Crocker.

And yet, as Addicks noted during his talk, external product branding was a surprisingly low priority until 2001, when the company purchased the equally large Pillsbury. The branding emphasis at General Mills changed with the rise of the Internet, which gave everyday consumers the ability to open a dialogue with companies, form communities and even evangelize on behalf of a product that they especially liked.

Addicks said the goal of modern branding is to sell consumers on the greater benefits that a product can offer and then link the item to their lifestyle — or at least the lifestyle to which they aspire. For a food company such as General Mills, that can include highlighting the health benefits of cholesterol-lowering or fiber-boosting snacks or cereals, addressing the aspirations of new Latino immigrants eager to enjoy what America has to offer, or convincing young consumers that the products will help them have fun and look cool.

“We care about the role that Lucky Charms plays in a kid’s life and that Charms are magically delicious,” said Addicks, seeking to describe the unique bond between the brand and the consumer. “We care for that 8-year-old kid and [the idea] that Trix [cereal] really represents the first time they have thought of themselves as separate from their family unit — because Trix are for kids.”

To make the “brand champion” concept work, General Mills conducts extensive research to identify potential customers and their motivations. Take Josh, the champion for the Fruit by the Foot snack. “Josh is a kid who straddles two worlds,” Addicks said. “He’s moving from being a kid — interested in fun, with no particular schedule, content to let adults be in charge of his world — to having more of a schedule, more rituals and routines, and a few more expectations.” The marketing campaign that Addicks and General Mills developed for Josh and Fruit by the Foot aims to position the snack as something that will help these adolescent and “tween” consumers stay connected to that fun side. The brand’s most recent commercial features skateboarders amid blaring hip-hop music, emphasizing the “more” aspect of its three-foot rollup length.

In the case of Charlie and Lucky Charms, General Mills realized that not only does the growing popularity of Harry Potter-style fantasy define the kind of “brand champion” that its marketers are seeking, but the magic phenomenon lends itself to new ways to use the Internet, including video serials known as “webisodes” and other new media tools, to reach the youthful audience. The first new charm added to the cereal in 10 years, an hourglass, was rolled out with a glitzy ad campaign — “Now Lucky (the Leprechaun) has the power to stop time” — and a website that features games and other interactive tools.

According to Addicks, marketing at General Mills is driven by a philosophy of brand management in which company executives work across functional lines to drive a unified vision for that brand. The size of the food company and its large array of product lines provide advantages of scale over smaller companies. This size and leveraging is also reflected in the large and increasingly global community of consumers who use tools — like blogs or YouTube videos — to communicate with the company and with each other.

Bathing in Cinnamon Toast Crunch

 “Community is something that we used to take for granted and now we spend a lot of time on,” Addicks said, adding that there are currently 58 online communities that are devoted just to Cheerios, its best-known cereal brand. Today, marketers often learn of unsolicited videos posted to YouTube by fans of a product — such as a “Cinnamon Toast Crunch Rap” that has been viewed more than 64,000 times since it was added to YouTube in 2007 (the rap video shows two young male rappers in a tub filled with milk and Cinnamon Toast Crunch).

But the lines of communication run both ways. Last year, General Mills promoted its popular Nature Valley line of healthy snack bars by asking its fans on the Internet, “Where’s Your Nature Valley?” — a pleasant oasis in their lives. The campaign was so successful the company followed up and solicited videos from consumers. One video of a customer floating atop a placid lake in the mountains of California was recently turned into a national television spot.

Addicks said that each branding campaign seeks to identify “touch points” — the media or location where it makes the most sense to locate and contact the target consumer. Last year’s launch of Fiber One bars seemed problematic because, as Addicks himself noted, “our big insight was that most fiber tastes terrible.” So, General Mills targeted Weight Watchers meetings and the growing plethora of blogs devoted to dieting and fitness to promote the taste of the new product. Now, Fiber One bars represent a $120 million product line. For Totino’s — which is the number-one brand in frozen pizza snacks and is particularly popular with teenage boys — marketers produced a series of humorous “Roll Into the X Games” webisodes tying in to the growing interest in extreme sports.

Addicks noted that General Mills also has considerable ability to boost its brand identity through its charitable work — particularly its Boxtops for Education program that has raised more than $200 million for schools across America since it was launched in 1996 — as well as direct media efforts, such as its Betty Crocker cookbooks. More recently, the company’s aggressive push to woo the fast-growing Latino market led to the launch of Que Rica Vida, a magazine that offers health tips and recipes aimed at promoting Hispanic heritage and lifestyles; it already has a circulation of 400,000.

This is how Addicks explains the philosophy of the magazine, which it produces in partnership with Univision, the Spanish-language television network: “You chose to come to America, and now we want to reward you for that. We want to explain the wonderful life here, and we want to explain some of the routines.” But General Mills hopes to do that while using elements of Latino culture as its touch points, including television ads that feature women confiding in and discussing products with their close female friends, or comadres.

Global Conversations

Many of General Mills’ best branding ideas come from a highly focused in-house effort that includes a monthly “First Wednesday” meeting in which executives around the globe share marketing ideas, dissect successful branding by rival companies and frequently hear from outside experts. The company has also created a network that allows the current marketing team to connect with the executives who initially built many of General Mills’ brands.

Today, the company’s brand builders face their most difficult challenge in a generation: Maintaining General Mills’ market share and profitability in the face of the worldwide economic slowdown. Addicks said he believes clever branding may hold the key to surviving the recession by forging a connection with consumers’ ongoing needs to stay fit or find lower-cost eating alternatives.

He acknowledged that tough financial times are, in part, the inspiration for a new branding effort for Pillsbury that emphasizes comfort and home. A new TV commercial shows people from all walks of lives clicking their heels three times — evoking the ending of “The Wizard of Oz” — to express their desire for home, and a heaping basket of warm biscuits. For Addicks, such a campaign fulfills his grand concept of a brand champion, in which a product solves a difficult dilemma or meets a critical need in the customer’s life. “We look at their wants or needs and contrast that with the beliefs that they have — so there’s a natural tension and a problem that the brand should solve.”