Twelve years ago, my wife and I brought our first son home from the hospital. Our lives changed in a heartbeat, with diapers and sleep schedules and children’s books and toys and more. But that baby had another profound effect on our household: He changed our milk habits.
Yes, before Matthew was born, my wife and I drank 1% milk. (I hate to admit that, but at least it wasn’t skim.) We were health conscious, and we bought 1% milk to, quite honestly, make us feel like we were being healthier. It didn’t taste great, but we were being healthy, or at least we thought.
But as most people with newborn babies know, the pediatrician always recommends whole milk once the baby is off formula. We bought him whole milk, and we bought 1% milk.
Then something happened. I started drinking some of that whole milk. And, as it turned out, I loved it! It was the first time in years that I started drinking whole milk. And I couldn’t go back.
Eventually, we stopped buying 1% altogether. I rediscovered why I liked whole milk: It tastes great!
Every morning, I have a bowl of cereal with milk. It tastes good and, more importantly, it gives me time to just sit and talk to my kids. My middle son, Miles, loves his cereal, too. We can bond over Raisin Bran or Trix, and we never forget our milk.
These are reminders of why milk is important to me. Yes, milk is a commodity, and a necessity for many households, but for the people who have given up on it, they need a reason to fall in love with it again.
Bill Gutrich, senior director of food industry engagement for Elanco Animal Health, agrees. At a recent talk put on by the American Dairy Coalition at World Dairy Expo, he challenged dairy industry leaders to change the industry’s messaging. Instead of asking people not to hate dairy because it is trying to do positive things, he thinks the industry needs to focus on the positives of milk.
Gutrich, who grew up in Chicago and has no dairy background, has worked for Unilever — the company behind Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Lipton and other products — ConAgra and Samsung. He also worked for 17 years at Coca-Cola on the marketing team that worked exclusively with McDonald’s.
At Elanco, he works with the food industry on communicating the positives of animal agriculture. He’s met with representatives from Dairy Management Inc. and thinks they have good ideas, but the marketing isn’t there yet, he said.
Why? From his experience, great marketing cuts to the emotions of why someone wants to buy a product.
“Think about when a consumer walks up to the dairy case at the supermarket. What are the emotional rewards they’re getting by buying that gallon of milk, or buying that yogurt? People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” he said.
Take Home Depot, for example, he said. Yes, they sell tools, but they also sell the idea of people being able to do projects on their own without having to call a contractor. As a result, consumers will pay a premium for products that are otherwise just commodities.
When I think of milk, I think of cherished moments with my son having breakfast. Gutrich said the industry needs to market to those emotions to win people back. Yes, sustainability is important, but there are other ways to address that, such as a website or community relations to show your sustainability initiatives.
Coca-Cola, for example, sells soda and the idea of why people want to buy it — enjoying a Coke at a ballgame, with a friend, or thinking about the polar bears and Santa Claus during the holidays. Yes, the company gets a lot of criticism for marketing what’s essentially a can of sugar, but does it come up in its marketing? No. The company’s corporate social responsibility communications team handles that.
Sustainability and defending dairy against its detractors is important, Gutrich said, but when it comes to marketing, it doesn’t help to win back people.
“Dairy is a great brand with a ton of criticism, but you can’t bring that argument into marketing,” he said. “Handle that correctly and market to people as to why people love milk, or remind them why they used to love milk.”
Coca-Cola and other companies have marketing budgets that likely dwarf anything that the checkoff can ever put forward. But there are many creative ways for dairy to do a better job of selling itself to people.
I’ll gladly let the dairy checkoff borrow my son’s mug of himself eating his morning bowl of cereal and milk if that’ll help. Dairy doesn’t have to apologize for anything. It might just need better messaging.
Got any ideas?