You can't get more evocative than food. Remember Marcel Proust writing about the childhood memories that overcame him as he dipped a madeleine cookie in tea? It's not just one of the great passages in classic literature. It is a blueprint for how food is mapped in our brains to the broader realm of emotions and experience.

When you sell a cookie, perhaps a Damo butter cookie, with space for just a few words on the packaging, what wells are you going to dip into? Are you going to ground your cookie history in the established legacy of the Europe, where the plain butter biscuit first appeared in France in 1886? Or will you focus on quality ingredients like real butter? Or perhaps the crisp scalloped edges, based on the Leibniz Butterkeks? Or would you, like Damo USA, choose to market your cookies as a guilt-free pleasure?

Food brands need salient stories

The greatest frustration I face as a brand storyteller is that new or smaller brands suffer from FOMO. They want to cover absolutely everything within their brand story, so they don't miss out on potential customers. This means they wind up with internally inconsistent ideas that weaken the salience of the brand.

Example: inconsistencies in Damo's story

Damo makes butter cookies. It positions itself as "a healthier snack" with real butter, no corn syrup, no artificial colors, and just 30 calories per cookie.

I'm coming down hard on Damo because they have a great story to tell, but they aren't telling it.

(Disclosure: I worked on the packaging, but Damo used their own copy... maybe I really am just a petty asshole.)

What Damo could say instead

Food brand stories need "limited ingredients"

I read an interesting article about restaurants yesterday. It said the most profitable and popular menu items are usually the least complicated.

Food is ultimately about comfort for most people. There is always an element of satisfaction that goes beyond stuffing our puffy American bellies. When we eat out or buy a premium product, we want to do more than appease physical hunger. We want to satisfy primal cravings for emotional and spiritual nourishment. It goes back to mom and the simple love we craved as infants.

Brand stories need to limit their ingredients too. Simplicity rules because it is easier to process cognitively and can resonate at a deeper emotional level. Strong brand stories often have little to do with product features and everything to do with emotion.

Clean ideas with a few salient (meaningful) points stand out. Kim Kardashian, whatever you think of her, has built an incredibly profitable personal brand based on big tits + big ass in nice clothes and sunglasses. It's pretty much the same thing over and over and people like it because they get it, they don't have to think about it, and they are amused by it.

Brands need the same kind of clarity. A few key ideas that really sum up the attributes that make you special and desirable – expressed in a way that is meaningful to your audience. And remember, people aren't really logical in their choices.

DOVE® Chocolate understands this and appeals directly to emotion in its advertising. There is nothing healthful about it; instead, it a small indulgence that every woman deserves to make herself feel better.

I confess: I love milk products even though I am somewhat lactose-intolerant. That means I buy several brands of yogurt (usually whole milk and organic), which I gleefully eat like dessert for breakfast. Or, for lunch. Or, whenever. I also have real cream in my coffee and grass-fed whole milk with my cereal – but that's another story.

Today, we're talking about yogurt.

Based on per capita consumption, the U.S. yogurt market is still in its infancy. In European countries, people consume two to six times more yogurt.

But U.S. per capital consumption of yogurt has declined since it flatlined in 2013-2014. Both conventional and Greek-style yogurts have been affected.

The intellectual history of yogurt

Ever since I took a course from Dr. Harold Parker on intellectual history, I've been interested in the history of ideas – how ideas become part of our cultural consciousness and build on each other

Given the fragmented state of the yogurt market today, how can we make heads or tails of it?

Let's take it blow by blow, one idea at a time.

1977: "Yogurt is a mainstream health food."

Traditional yogurt (the "real" kind) is too sour for American tastes. Introduced in 1947, Dannon yogurt (Danone North America) with fruit on the bottom made yogurt palatable if not exactly popular.

By the 1970s, things had changed. Advertising linking yogurt to longevity positioned Dannon as a healthy choice. By the 1980s, total U.S. yogurt sales were growing 18% annually. This spurred a host of product innovations, including frozen yogurt and Go-Gurt.

With Dannon, the idea of yogurt as a healthful food became part the American mindset.

1979: "Yogurt is foreign (in a good way)."

This is the cornerstone idea yogurt is built on. In 1979, General Mills introduced "rich and creamy, all-natural" Yoplait to the U.S. with a television campaign emphasizing the brand's "French culture."

Yoplait introduced the idea of yogurt as a creamy indulgence from another culture.

1982: "Yogurt is a low-calorie, low-fat diet food."

U.S. Dietary Guidelines led to the 1980s low-fat movement. All three big players (Chobani, Danone, General Mills) offer fat-free and low-fat products.

1985: "Yogurt is a convenient and nutritious breakfast on-the-run."

Yoplait didn't invent yogurt for breakfast, but it latched onto the trend. Today, more than 90% of yogurt is eaten for breakfast. (Source: Cargill) Yet 40% of adults – notably millennials – skip breakfast altogether.

1998: "Yogurt is cool for kids."

General Mills was first to launch yogurt for kids. In 1999, after tests in regional markets, Go-Gurt was rolled out across the U.S. It posted $100 million in retail sales within 12 months and helped General Mills hit the no. 1 spot in the yogurt category, ahead of Dannon. An article by AdAge pointed out the product won because it combined the first freezable yogurt with tube packaging, making it ideal for lunchboxes. Kid-centric flavors and a television campaign that positioned yogurt as cool also helped.

"It's remarkable how quickly Go-Gurt has permeated the whole kid environment and become a critical part of the fabric of kids' lives."

Ian Friendly, President Yoplait/Colombo Division, General Mills

2003: "Yogurt is good because it has probiotics."

Danone introduced probiotic yogurt to America in 2003 and its Activia and DanActive brands are synonymous with the category. It has added probiotic yogurt drinks (Dailies) and Greek versions.

2006: "Organic yogurt is healthier for everyone."

Stonyfield Field began making yogurt from its own cows in 1983, but realized they could grow faster if they used milk from nearby farms. Danone bought a 40% stake in 2001. Ultimately, Danone bought out Stonyfield in 2014 and then in 2017, it sold the company to Lactalis so it could acquire natural foods company WhiteWave.

[In 2003] Flavor, in fact, seems to have fallen fairly far down the list of what motivates consumers and producers of organic food: health concerns and simple market share are taking priority, not only over flavor but also over the environment. 

Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, 2003

[2006] What was once a cottage industry of family farms has become Big Business, with all that that implies, including pressure from Wall Street to scale up and boost profits. (Stonyfield founder and CEO) Gary Hirshberg himself is under the gun because he has sold an 85% stake in Stonyfield to the French food giant Groupe Danone. To retain management control, he has to keep Stonyfield growing at double-digit rates. Yet faced with a supply crunch, he has drastically cut the percentage of organic products in his line. He also has scaled back annual sales growth, from almost 40% to 20%. "They're all mad at me," he says.

Diane Brady, Bloomberg Businessweek

2007: "Greek yogurt is a creamy, high-protein snack."

Fage, the leading yogurt producer in Greece, has been on U.S. grocery shelves since 1998. In 2006, Greek-style (strained) yogurt was just 4% of the U.S. yogurt sales. Atlanta adman Al Ries explains how Fage lost the Greek yogurt wars to Chobani in an article for AdAge.

Consumers of traditional light yogurts are pivoting away from this segment (conventional yogurts) to products that provide more satiety, like Greek yogurts.

Ken Powell, General Mills CEO

2008: "Yogurt has simple ingredients and less sugar."

Yogurt with less sugar has been around for years, but those products used artificial sweeteners that modern consumers want to avoid. 76% of Americans say they want to avoid or limit sugar. Almost the same number say they check nutrition labels. (Study by the Hartman Group )

Siggi's (founded 2004) bills itself as having "simple ingredients and not a lot of sugar".

Whole Foods began carrying Siggi's in 2008 and nine years later it had annual sales of about $200 million.

Lactalis bought it in 2017.

One of the most persistent knocks on Yoplait, and other conventional yogurts, is that it contains too much sugar. Chobani and Noosa are plenty sweet, but customers are willing to indulge some flaws if they feel the brand is authentic.

Craig Giamonna, Bloomberg News

2015: "Vegan yogurt is the choice for a sustainable planet."

In 2017, a Nielsen survey found that 39% of American households are trying to eat more plant-based foods. This includes plant-based yogurt, which saw 56% growth in 2017.

The shift toward plant-based foods is being driven by millennials, who are most likely to consider the food source, animal welfare issues, and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions.

Fiona Dyer, Analyst with Global Data

For the yogurt industry specifically, the trend has brought to store shelves dairy-free, plant-based yogurt featuring ingredients such as soy, coconut, almonds and cashews, as well as pea-based yogurt.

Daniel Granderson, Packaged Facts

2015: "Full-fat yogurt is good for you...think avocado toast."

For decades, Americans chose low-fat dairy products based on U.S. Dietary Guidelines that cautioned against the consumption of saturated fats.

Younger demographics get nutrition information from their own sources. They recognize the dietary value of fat and have driven Instagrammable crazes like avocado on toast, which tripled avocado consumption by 2015. Likewise, millennials are buying full-fat dairy products, 

2016: "Drinkable yogurt is easy to enjoy on the go."

Spoonable yogurt makes up 90% of yogurt sales but drinkable yogurt is beginning to gain traction. Sales of yogurt drinks rose 62% between 2011 and 2016 and continue to rise. Even so, it faces challenges – including competition from smoothies and other drinkables.

Most people only think about eating their yogurt and not drinking it. People also told us that they’re not fans of the thicker texture of drinkable yogurt, which is odd because they appreciate that with cup yogurts—and they often demand a thick texture with fruit smoothies and shakes.

Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst for Mintel

2017: "What a great little jar... and the yogurt is good too."

In 2017, General Mills introduced Oui by Yoplait. It is creamy French-style yogurt made from "simple ingredients" poured and set in a glass cup. Retail sales topped $100 million within 12 months of its launch.

Oui by Yoplait introduces an entirely new category of yogurt to the U.S. using a recipe that has been enjoyed for decades in France. It is a subtly sweet yogurt inspired by Yoplait’s traditional French recipe, made with simple non-GMO ingredients, poured and set in a glass pot.

David Clark, President U.S. Yogurt General Mills

2019: "What's next?"

The research firm Packaged Facts suggests U.S. yogurt sales have the potential to increase to $9.8 billion in 2022.

But the truth is, yogurt sales are sagging. Per capita consumption in the U.S. peaked in 2013-2014 and has stagnated ever since. Total dollar sales tracked by IRI show yogurt sales dropped 0.8% in 2016, 1.6% in 2017, and 2.7% in 2018. (Source: Nielsen)

Let's package whole-milk, high-protein yogurt with "simple ingredients" in transparent, biodegradable disposable meal-size 8 oz. cups with disposable spoons. Danone has already taken the first steps toward biodegradable plastic.

Several trends seem solid: consumer preference for thick and creamy strained yogurt, the desire for on-the-go convenience, and consumption patterns that make yogurt a meal. All-natural yogurts without GMOs or artificial ingredients are probably perceived as "near-healthy" to more costly organic yogurts (Both Siggi and Oui call this "simple ingredients"). Glass packaging fits in with millennial sustainability values – but only if you eat it near a recycling bin.

Yogurt visual rebranding

Words and visual elements work together to create a message. In fact, packaging has very little wording (usually) and leans heavily on visual branding. As yogurt makers scrambled to plug leaky sales, they also reinvented their visual brands.


Packaging redesign

In 2017, Chobani's in-house team led by Leland Mashmeyer (who joined the company as Chief Creative Officer in 2016) redesigned its logo and packaging to attract more consumers and stand out from competitors:

General Mills

Brand positioning strategies

General Mills' new CEO, Jeffrey L. Harmening, said the company would revitalize yogurt sales using the same strategies that pulled cereals out of a five-year slump. This entailed launching new products to fit consumer preferences.

Oui packaging design

Our design took inspiration from French-style cursive handwriting, the rounded strokes of the Oui mark evoke a carefree and approachable aesthetic, while the handmade nature of the product is further mirrored in the watercolor texture in the letterforms. Reflecting the French countryside and French kitchens, the blue palette has become a key equity against new glass pot structure which reflects the brand's premium nature in a sustainable way.

(Pearlfisher, London Design Team (CORE 77 Design Awards Runner Up 2018)

Liberté packaging design

Pearlfisher, the design agency that also created Oui packaging, stated the goal of Liberté yogurt's packaging design was to "move from a dairy brand to a premium lifestyle brand."

Founded by a group of explorers, today Liberté attracts a community of like-minded, curious consumers who want and expect more from their food. We dialed up this notion, identifying this contemporary group as “Kindred Seekers” 


Translating the above into earthier language, the packaging is designed to appeal to millennials, who expect food to connect with them in unique ways. Liberté includes cheeky little factoids on its foil lids. Noosa does the same thing.

YQ packaging design

Billed as "smarter not sweeter" the packaging for this lower-sugar entry presents "just the facts" in a gender-neutral color scheme.

The dark-grey color palette stands as an impactful presence in the yogurt aisle, stepping away from convention and cueing a more gender-neutral product. Differentiation between each of the eight flavors is established by a distinct, yet subtle color to mirror the lightness of each recipe. The simplicity of the typography on the face of each yogurt cup illustrates the brand's desire to offer consumers more of what they need and less of what they don't. In fact, the nutritional value of each flavor is framed by the letter "Q", like a magnifying glass bringing the protein and sugar intake into direct view.


Dannon Company

Activia packaging

We revisited the entire ACTIVIA ecosystem including a refreshed brand mark, a revised tone of their proprietary green color and new packaging structure and photographic style. The design visually recounts a story at the heart of the new ACTIVIA positioning: the synthesis of science and nature, mind and core, health and pleasure. One of the key elements we created is the new brand icon: a symbol of synergy and balance, key drivers of the new brand storyline.

Futurebrand 2016

Want to see more yogurt packaging? Check out this Pinterest board.

P.S. Cheat sheet of the leading yogurt brands

Just three powerhouses –Danone-North America, General Mills, and Chobani – control 75% of the U.S. yogurt market.

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