The path from dairy research to consumer impact is never a short one, but with a good strategy, persistence and strong relationships it can yield tremendous results for dairy farmers, according to Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc. Case in point: McDonald's switch from margarine to butter at its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. (See Monday's story).
Related: Butter is better
"You can start all the way back in 1915, when the National Dairy Council was founded, and trace 100 years of science-based, credible information that NDC has supported and disseminated," he notes. "You'd see 100 years' worth of investments in research, communications and relationships with leaders, health and wellness professionals, schools, the government, the media and consumers. Our work has kept milk as the only food item required to be offered as part of the national school lunch and breakfast program, and has helped positively inform and shape the Dietary Guidelines every five years."
DMI.'s success with McDonald's represents how a single idea can lead to multiple opportunities.
"We began working with McDonald's in 2004 to introduce single-serve milk in round re-sealable plastic bottles with Happy Meals. The concept worked, leading to more dairy-friendly ideas and successes," Gallagher explains.
In this partnership, dairy checkoff employees work side-by-side with McDonald's employees at their headquarters to work on innovative new products that meet consumer demand.
"Today, McDonald's has become a "dairy destination" for 26 million customers who visit the chain's 14,300 restaurants each day," he notes. "The dairy checkoff's 'McDonald's team' helps create new, innovative items, such as the Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich. McDonald's uses the Real Seal in its marketing of the sandwich and a glass of buttermilk to leverage consumers' appeal of 'real' dairy.
In October, McDonald's launched an all-day breakfast menu.
"This is great news for dairy farmers," says National Dairy Board member Ray Prock, a dairy farmer from Denair, Calif., who milks 550 cows.
"Many of McDonald's breakfast menu items that feature dairy will now be available for customers who can enjoy them whenever they like," says Prock who has served on the National Dairy Board for the past six years. "This includes breakfast sandwiches, parfaits, smoothies, milk and McCafe coffee-based drinks that include dairy."
McDonald's is the world's largest quick-serve restaurant and it spends a significant amount of money on advertising its products, including many that contain dairy, Gallagher says. This comes at no cost to the checkoff.
"McDonald's is spending its money to advertise butter and the Real Seal, which has far more impact on the consumer mindset long-term than if we just generically advertised butter," Gallagher explains. "Twenty menu items are now made with butter and McDonald's is advertising the change with signage that says 'Let us butter you up.'"
Wallin believes the impact will multiply.
"We'll see even more dairy move through other restaurant chains when they start imitating McDonald's, which they always do."
Wallin says, lately there has been a reexamination of milk fat's role in the diet.
"NDC research staff, led by Dr. Greg Miller, the world's preeminent dairy nutrition scientist, are active leaders of the conversation as experts and consumers to 'de-demonize' some fats, including milk fat," Gallagher notes.
NDC's role is threefold:
1) Do the science, through checkoff-staff PhDs who can go toe-to-toe with industry and academic scientists to ensure we are doing the right studies and
2) enter into partnerships with the people who can translate the science, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which informs its membership and consumers, so that
3) people can understand and apply that information to their daily lives.
Often consumers adopt behaviors even before the science is fully embraced by industry.
"This conversation, our active participation in it, and the breadth of research has led to some breakthrough studies, such as one by the World Health Organization that found no link between saturated fat (such as milk fat) and the risk of heart disease," Gallagher says. "It also led to a milestone cover of Time magazine last year that stated simply, "Eat Butter.'"
Adding to the impact the checkoff has in the conversation have been the national and local relationships DMI has built over the years with health professionals, schools, government and others to provide them with science-based information about dairy as a necessary, delicious part of America's diet.
"These trusted relationships provide us with third-party partners who can then educate their own audiences about dairy's role on the table, and they often produce additional resources that help us reach even more consumers and other stakeholders," Gallagher says.
Years ago, DMI shifted their strategy away from generic advertising and promotions to one where they instead work with partners to make product and availability changes that will grow dairy throughout entire categories.
"McDonald's was one of the first partners, and they continue to deliver – thanks in great part to the checkoff staff in place in McDonald's corporate office," Prock says. " These are dairy scientists, insights experts, nutrition professionals and communicators, there to help develop, test, position and market new dairy-friendly items."
A century of sound science, decades of relationship building and a consistent strategy executed by top-notch staff has helped change the conversation about milkfat.
"We will keep working with partners to create and assist in innovations that move more milk for America's dairy farmers," Prock says.