I like the approach that General Mills has taken to become one of the winners in the emerging new category of gluten-free foods. Unlike Anheuser-Busch that was one of the early pioneers with a gluten-free beer back in 2006, General Mills has been able to leverage a broad line of food products and the Betty Crocker Kitchen to create a major footprint in the new arena.

Until just a few years ago, Gluten-Free food was a narrow niche involving a small percentage of the 1% of the population that needs a totally gluten-free diet and has been diagnosed as such. However, this population is growing sharply, and, more importantly, substantial numbers of others, estimated as high as 25% of the population, are attracted to the diet because of a belief that it can help a variety of other conditions such as arthritis, autism, and irritable bowel syndrome and because there is a perception that it is inherently healthy.

The brand and innovation question is how to be in a position to detect and respond to this trend. General Mills in early 2008 converted their Rice Chex cereal to be gluten-free, a major investment given that Rice Chex was an important cereal brand. The firm was astounded by the jump in sales that resulted. Recognizing a real opportunity, they inventoried the products that were already gluten-free and reformulated others.

There was a substantial list that grew to include some 250 products from brands like Big G cereals, Yoplait, Bisquick, Betty Crocker and more. A breakthrough innovation was the introduction of Betty Crocker Gluten-Free dessert mixes in 2009, made possible by the availability of newly developed gluten- free ingredients. Desserts found in the supermarket had here-to-fore been limited. In early 2010, General Mills developed a web site Liveglutenfreely.com in order to provide a go-to place for gluten-free eaters and to provide an umbrella for the General Mills gluten-free effort.

The cornerstone is a set of recipes rated by the audience covering seven areas such as snacks, main dishes, and desserts. Three principle bloggers provide thoughts about cooking for families and for gourmet settings. There is a resource list of books and websites, a monthly newsletter that provides articles and coupons, and a printable list of some 250 General Mills gluten-free products. The site involves by allowing the visitor to submit and rate recipes, blog, and comment.

It is hard to say if the early advantage that General Mills has earned will be enduring or whether they can own a dominant position or website. But they are doing a lot of things right and they should be a player in the new space going forward. Some lessons. First, the emergence of the gluten-free market, illustrates that niche markets, considered too small, can get traction. Second, social media has a role in making the emergence of the new category happen faster and in determining who will ultimately win. Third, the breadth of seemingly disparate products anchored by the Betty Crocker Kitchen and distribution clout represent assets that can have an important role with product spanning trends such as gluten-free eating or high fiber foods. What do you think will be the next big food category or subcategory?