Even a casual supermarket shopper can recognize the relatively new popularity of Greek yogurt, which has gone mainstream faster and more firmly than Sriracha sauce, salted caramels, or cronuts.
As chief marketing and brand officer for the Chobani brand, Peter McGuinness is one of the key people responsible for fighting the yogurt wars—that has become a real term, he joked—and building a mass-market food brand by using nontraditional media. Social channels were key to the early development of the brand. Now that it has broken into the top ranks, Chobani continues to appear in unexpected places, from a branded café offering Mediterranean foods (using yogurt, of course) to advertising in the Super Bowl.
CMO.com spoke to McGuinness after he offered a sneak peek at Chobani’s new advertising campaign during the recent NewsCred #ThinkContent Summit. He spoke about the importance of storytelling to his brand, how old-school channels are still relevant, and how brick-and-mortar can work to amplify digital messages—and vice versa.
CMO.com: You often speak of the journey of the challenger brand, but can Chobani still be considered a challenger brand now that it dominates its segment?
McGuinness: We’ve moved on beyond challenging our competition. We’re challenging convention. That’s in terms of food, in terms of creativity, in terms of entrepreneurialism.
I don’t think we’re challenging Dannon and Yoplait. We’ve surpassed them, but we’re constantly challenging convention on how food should be made, the way food used to be made, how you communicate, [and] how you present yourself.
CMO.com: Speaking on presenting yourself, you have a new ad campaign replacing last year’s “How matters” message with “Love this life.” Why the evolution?
McGuinness: I think we credentialized our food around our recipe and how we make it—our food philosophy of only natural [ingredients]. That was really important for us, to get credit for the way we make our food because the way we make our food is very different than the way our competitors make their food. That’s why we’re aspirationally priced and why we are an aspirational brand.
We evolved from that to be more about how our food makes you feel, and this led to this space of “Love this life.” What we’re trying to do with that is trying to sell and to own an ideal. ... It’s our brand, our product, and the humble role they play in consumers lives, with a little Mediterranean spirit in there.
We think more people will care about what they eat and how they live. There’s signs everywhere. You ask consumers now, and nine out of 10 consumers will tell you that if they’re similarly priced, I’d prefer the natural option versus the unnatural options.
CMO.com: You advertised in the Super Bowl and Oscars last year, then passed on both events this year and opened a Chobani Café at the Sundance Film Festival. Is that a switch in your events strategy? Sundance is rather aspirational for a yogurt.
McGuinness: We’re not just a yogurt company—we’re a food company. [And] we’re not just a food company—we’re a natural food company. And we’re not just a natural food company—we’re a natural food company that believes in a lot of things: Marketing better foods, the humane treatment of animals, equality in all its forms, and fundamentally creativity, which is very different than our CPG competitors.
We’re a creative company in culture and at heart, so we wanted to participate in our own way in Sundance. Sundance shouldn’t be reserved for liquor or credit cards. ... It’s an independent film festival, and we’re an independent company. We’re not run by a bunch of directors; we’re not publicly traded, so there’s an independent spirit there.
CMO.com: With the Olympics and Sundance, are you focusing more on sponsorships?
McGuinness: And we’ve continued the Chomobile [trucks], state to state. Sampling is a big part of our strategy because we have very high repeat [purchase]. Getting more people to try our yogurt is fundamental.
The Olympics works well because the athletes naturally eat our yogurt in their training facilities. We’re just shining a spotlight; I’m not trying to create behavior that doesn’t exist—I’m not trying to deflect or mask anything. They eat our product, true story. Powering Team USA is an authentic story that really works well for us.
And then we dipped into Aspen Food and Wine [Classic], trying to stretch the boundaries of yogurt consumption. Because the majority of yogurt is still consumed before noon, we’re trying to get into savory and afternoon consumption of yogurt. Aspen Food and Wine is interesting. It was hugely successful last year, so we’re getting ready to do it again.
CMO.com: So you have TV ads, events, and sampling—all fairly traditional efforts.
McGuinness: Not to be competitive—but I will be—if you look at how we activate versus our competitor brands, it’s very different.
When we’re at Aspen Food and Wine, it looks like we built for Aspen. It looks like a natural part of that landscape. It’s the same at Park City [at Sundance]. We’re not an intrusive brand. We’re a complementary brand. That’s how we approach all of this. Tactics may be the same, [but] execution is very different.
CMO.com: You have said Chobani was active in social media early on because you had no budget. How has your focus on social changed as your budgets grew?
McGuinness: I think our content has gotten better. It’s more shared and more liked than it ever has. We’ve had the most successful posts and tweets in the history of our company in the past six to eight months.
We’re a little bit more disciplined about it. We probably calendar about two-thirds of the things we’re going to do socially, and we keep the other third live and active and topical. We keep it really interesting.
I think we’re better prepared, we’re better content creators, and we’re actually leveraging it in more effective ways than in the past. And we’re adding channels: We’re on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, but we’re also in Tumblr [and] experimenting [with] Snapchat.
CMO.com: To what do you owe that improvement? Practice? More resources?
McGuinness: Yes, the old adage: Practice makes perfect. But we constantly challenge ourselves to beat where we were.
That’s a cultural trait of Chobani. We’ve never sat still. We’re always pushing ourselves to be better, new, and different. So we challenge ourselves to outdo ourselves. There’s that kind of spirit that’s inherent in Chobani.
CMO.com: Are you looking for more digital channels to experiment?
McGuinness: There’s so much runway and room to optimize within the channels in which we operate that we’re not just going to do new channels for the sake of new channels. It would have to make sense to do it.
I love our cafes. It’s a physical space. It’s bricks and mortar. Let’s have that debate. People say to me: “Oh Peter, it’s about e-commerce, and you’re building cafes.” Yeah, damn right we are. Because bricks and mortar also have digital applications.
[Chobani Soho] is the fifth most Instagrammed restaurant in all of New York City. We’re creating experiences every day that are sticky, that have a positive impact on our business, and consumers are creating content in our café. It’s this beautiful, authentic content generator. It’s an inspiration center for us.
Is it old-school? Call it what you will. It’s a beautiful place to be, and that will never change, no matter how much technology comes. People still like physical places they can touch and feel.
I’m not saying I’m anti-technology; it’s in addition to technology. Look at our Web site; it’s a beautiful home, too. Explore that, look at us on Facebook and Instagram. I’m really proud of our Instagram presence.
You know what? I’m going to do some TV ads and raise some awareness. Am I an old-school CMO? Or am I just a practical CMO who is going to use channels based on the issues and opportunities that I see as a brand?
To me, it’s all of the above. When we generate great content—on advertising, social and digital, in our physical spaces, and our events—you gather all that up, and it’s this beautiful collective.
CMO.com: What’s next for Chobani?
McGuinness: I’d love to open more cafes, for sure. We’re up 120% year-over-year from a comp store perspective, so we think we’re on to something.
We’re going to launch more products in July, which is the July reset. We’re going to launch a savory item in Q1 2016, but I can’t tell you about that right now.
There’s a lot of momentum right now, a lot of excitement. The campaign will really launch in [May]. We’re excited about that.
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