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Microsoft’s MSDN team recently sat down with General Mills’ marketing manager, Dom Alcocer, to learn more about Gluten Freely. Gluten Freely is a General Mills cloud-based consumer business channel that was built on Windows Azure and showcases gluten-free products and related information. See the full interview below.
MSDN: Tell us about General Mills.
Alcocer: With more than 33,000 employees, General Mills is one of the world’s leading food companies. Our brands include Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Nature Valley and Pillsbury.
MSDN: What led the company to develop Gluten Freely?
Alcocer: Gluten, a protein naturally found in certain grains common in a modern diet, can cause health problems for a small but growing number of people who have sensitivities to it, including those with celiac disease. We realized that people with celiac disease, and others who have some kind of gluten sensitivity or who just want to live a gluten-free lifestyle, were having particular difficulty in simply locating all of the great foods that they need to make this diet come to life for them. They couldn’t find places to buy the products, and they had to spend a lot of time sifting and sorting through the Internet to find recipes and other information about gluten-free diets.
In order to assist these customers, we wanted to create a direct-to-consumer online channel that would allow them to buy gluten-free products directly from General Mills.
MSDN: What is Gluten Freely?
Alcocer: Gluten Freely is a cloud-based consumer business channel for gluten-free products and related information. The site gives consumers access to a broad range of resources—including recipes, blogs, community forums, and medical facts about gluten—along with coupons and discounts for our online store where they can choose from a selection of more than 400 gluten-free products, which are then shipped directly to the consumer’s door. We sell both our own products along with non–General Mills products in an effort to provide the largest possible selection to consumers.
MSDN: Why did you choose to build Gluten Freely on Windows Azure?
Alcocer: BrandJourney Venturing, the solution provider we worked with on this project, evaluated possible technology platforms and recommended we use a cloud-based solution for speed, flexibility, cost, and scalability reasons. In the end, we felt the best route to go was to run on Windows Azure.
MSDN: What were some of the advantages of building on Windows Azure?
Alcocer: Windows Azure allows us to add infrastructure based on consumer demand—essentially, one consumer at a time—instead of forcing us to buy and build servers and systems based on guesses of what we’ll need. The General Mills New Ventures group has been tasked with creating new ways of doing business. With Windows Azure, and by working with BrandJourney Venturing, we brought a new business idea to market about twice as fast and at about half the cost of using a more traditional IT development and brand agency model.
In addition, Windows Azure gave us right out of the gate a platform for creating a solution where compliance and data integrity were protected. We have great confidence in the Microsoft data centers that run Windows Azure. This is critical to the success of the project, because we’re working with a lot of transactional information, including credit card data and customers’ personal information. The Windows Azure platform provides a level of security and robustness that supports a rock-solid experience for consumers.
MSDN: What other Microsoft technologies are you leveraging in this solution?
Alcocer: Gluten Freely was designed using Visual Studio and the .NET Framework; product and customer data is stored in SQL Azure. The solution also supports federated identity with social networking activity, prompting users to create a link when users log on to sites like Facebook or Twitter. The company also uses Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online for our ecommerce analytics activities.
MSDN: How long did take to develop Gluten Freely?
Alcocer: Gluten Freely took about six months to develop and went live in March 2011.
MSDN: What has the customer response been to Gluten Freely?
Alcocer: We’ve gotten lots of great feedback from our fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter. In our first day, we had orders from more than 25 states; and of course, we now deliver to every state in the continental United States. With Windows Azure and the other Microsoft products, we were able to create and deploy a solution that met a growing market need. It gets great branding and advertising out there in a new way, and people love being able to go to one place to shop for gluten-free products and have them shipped right to their doors.
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