Telling a good story to sell yogurt

After losing the Greek yogurt battle, Yoplait tries a 'French' product

NEW YORK•A few years ago, as the Yogurt Wars were heating up and Greek invaders were storming the grocery aisles, executives at Yoplait, one of the United States' largest yogurt companies, began arguing among themselves.

Thick, sour Greek yogurts with names such as Chobani, Fage and Oikos were surging in popularity. Sales of runny, sugary Yoplait were oozing off a cliff.

So Yoplait executives ran to their test kitchens and developed a Greek yogurt of their own. All they needed was the perfect, authentic-sounding name.

One group argued for the Greek word for health and some oddly ecstatic punctuation: Ygeia! Another camp said that sounded like someone vomiting and pushed instead for made-up names that combined Yoplait with Hellenic suffixes, such as Yoganos.

For months, several current and former employees said, executives debated the options. Eventually, a choice was needed.

Yoplait, based in Minneapolis, is part of General Mills, the huge international food conglomerate that prides itself on clear-eyed, data- driven decision-making. Cold, hard numbers - not passion - have made Cheerios, Green Giant and Betty Crocker into colossal brands.

"We're disciplined," Mr David Clark, a 26-year company veteran, said. "That's why we succeed."

So in the end, executives turned to their spreadsheets. They found that neither Ygeia! nor Yoganos tested well. The data pointed in a more traditional direction.

So to great fanfare, in 2010, they released Yoplait Greek.

It tanked almost immediately. So has almost every other Greek yogurt product that Yoplait has put on shelves. The company's overall yogurt sales have declined by more than US$100 million (S$138.6 million) since 2010. As Chobani and others have earned billions, General Mills' share of the yogurt market has shrunk by a third.

So now, Yoplait is opening a new front in the cultured-milk battles. Next month, grocery stores will see its latest salvo, a new formula that executives say is innovative, exciting and passionate. They are calling it Oui by Yoplait, in homage to the company's French roots.

Whether it will succeed remains to be seen. But if, while shopping, one happens to pick up a small glass pot of Oui and is momentarily transported to the French countryside, one will know the company has finally figured out how to look beyond the data and embrace the narrative.

Yoplait may have figured out how to fake authenticity as craftily as everyone else.

In that lesson, there is a deeper business experiment - one that a person contributes to every time he picks up a product because he thinks someone once told him it was healthier or tastier or better for the environment, or something like that. All companies manufacture authenticity to some degree - that is called marketing.

But, increasingly, creating a sense of genuineness is essential to success.

"For consumers today, food isn't just about sustenance, it's about an experience," said Mr Darren Seifer, a food analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company. "People want a story behind what they buy. That's why craft beers and small organics are doing so well. They're selling authenticity. The big companies want that."

Consider, for instance, the unlikely tale of Chobani, the company that essentially created the Greek yogurt industry in the US.

In 1996, a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the US with US$3,000 in his pocket. Sixteen years later, he was selling US$1 billion worth of Greek yogurt by employing refugees from local resettlement centres and extolling the artisanal virtues of Chobani for the body, environment and soul.

This story of authenticity has been essential to Chobani's success and central to positioning Greek yogurt as an alternative to the sugary concoctions that come from companies such as Yoplait.

Chobani's story has been told thousands of times, everywhere from The New Yorker magazine to the 60 Minutes programme - free advertising worth more than US$3 million, says the data firm MediaQuant.

As Chobani grew, Yoplait commissioned focus groups that initially soothed executives' anxieties: Taste tests revealed that most people disliked Greek yogurt. It was too sour and unfamiliar, the data said. The products' names were too hard to remember. There was little need, Yoplait executives told one another, for concern.

But as the Greek phenomenon gained steam - today, it accounts for more than a third of all yogurt sales in the US - Yoplait's studies found an interesting hiccup: Even though people said they disliked Greek yogurt, they kept on trying it, again and again, until they learntto like it. Why? Because, consumers told Yoplait's researchers, they liked the Chobani story.

Consumers heard that Greek yogurt made it easier to lose weight. (There are 15g of sugar in a strawberry Chobani cup; Yoplait's strawberry has 18.) People said they had heard Chobani was more natural. (Though Chobani does not contain preservatives, other ingredients are similar to those of competitors.)

But the most powerful story, according to current and former Yoplait executives who described their research, was that consumers simply thought Chobani was cool. It was easier to believe it was authentic and healthy because it had an exotic name, a founder who embodied rags-to-riches success and lots of buzz.

So Yoplait began collecting data on how to become cool itself.

The problem for Yoplait was that authenticity - like innovation - almost never tests well. This is a common phenomenon.

"Data regresses to the mean," said Mr James Gilmore, a professor at the University of Virginia and co-author of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

"Something that's really original, really authentic, it's probably not going to score that well because people have a knee-jerk reaction against new things."

Eventually, however, after six years of releasing Yoplait Greek products that tests indicated should be big successes, but almost never were, General Mills admitted there was one option left: Executives had to study the science of manufacturing genuineness.

So they began passing studies showing that people get a neurological rush when they buy something they believe is authentic, such as clothing made by hand instead of a machine. But to make authenticity seem genuine, the research indicated, products needed some kind of story.

Chobani's narrative, drawing on the founder's personal story and a simple, timeworn recipe, fit into the American dream. What is more, the product's name was hard to pronounce, making it a little rough around the edges, which seemed even more authentic.

Yoplait began scouring its own history and ultimately found a tale that seemed to resonate: For centuries (or so the story goes), French farmers have made yogurt by putting milk, fruit and cultures into glass jars and then setting them aside. So Yoplait tweaked its recipe and began buying glass jars.

"Instead of culturing the ingredients in large batches and then filling individual cups," the company's news release reads, "Oui by Yoplait is made by pouring ingredients into each individual pot and allowing each glass pot to culture for eight hours, resulting in a uniquely thick, delicious yogurt."

Some may question how much these distinctions matter. "But the simplicity of this idea, that this is a French method, coming from a French brand, with a French name, that's authenticity," said Mr Clark, who is now the president of US yogurt at General Mills.

When data started coming back from focus groups, Yoplait's executives became even more enthusiastic. Some customers said they hated the name Oui. Others did not know how to pronounce it. (A small group said Oui sounded like a pornographic magazine. Which is accurate. It ceased publication in 2007.) Yoplait executives were thrilled. These were the imperfections they were looking for.

So, if this product is a success - if years from now someone tells the heartwarming story of how the Greek hordes were defeated by simple French pots - then we will know that Yoplait's number crunchers finally figured out the formula for authenticity and have reclaimed their crown.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Telling a good story to sell yogurt'. Print Edition | Subscribe