Eventually a choice was needed. Yoplait, based in Minneapolis, is part of General Mills, the huge international food conglomerate, which prides itself on cleareyed, data-driven decision-making. Cold, hard numbers — not passion — have made Cheerios, Green Giant and Betty Crocker into colossal brands. “We’re disciplined,” David Clark, a 26-year company veteran, told me. “That’s why we succeed.”
So in the end, executives turned to their spreadsheets. They discovered that neither Ygeía! nor Yoganos — nor any of the other ersatz names — tested well. The data pointed in a more traditional direction. So to great fanfare, in 2010, they released their finely tuned attempt to reclaim the yogurt crown.
They called it Yoplait Greek.
It tanked almost immediately. And so has almost every other Greek yogurt product that Yoplait has put on shelves. The company’s overall yogurt sales have declined by over $100 million since 2010. As Chobani and others have earned billions, General Mills’s 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, when you walk down the dairy aisle of your grocery store, you’ll see the company’s latest salvo, a new formula that executives say is innovative, exciting and — c’est possible? — passionate. They’re calling it Oui by Yoplait, in homage to the company’s French roots.
Whether it will succeed remains to be seen. Yoplait has stumbled before. But if, as you are shopping, you happen to pick up a small glass pot of Oui and are momentarily transported to the French countryside, you’ll know that 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’s a deeper business experiment — one you contribute to every time you pick up a product because you think someone once told you that it was healthier, or tastier, or better for the environment, or something like that. All companies manufacture authenticity to some degree. That’s 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 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 United States. In 1996, as Chobani’s well-oiled promotional machine will tell you, a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States with $3,000 in his pocket. Sixteen years later, he was selling $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt by employing refugees from local resettlement centers 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 like Yoplait. Chobani’s story has been told thousands of times, everywhere from The New Yorker magazine to “60 Minutes” — free advertising worth more than $3 million, according to the data firm MediaQuant.
As Chobani grew, Big Yogurt got worried. So Yoplait commissioned a series of 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 phenomena gained steam — today, it accounts for more than a third of all yogurt sales in the United States — 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 learned to 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 15 grams 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 lust for numbers, however, doomed even its best efforts. There were dozens of proposed innovations — hipper labels for Yoplait Greek, yogurts that tasted like exotic beers or jalapeño peppers, recipes that made tongues tingle or supposedly whitened teeth — but whenever these concepts were tested, there was never enough data to push them forward.
The problem for Yoplait was that authenticity — like innovation — almost never tests well. This is a common phenomenon. “Data regresses to the mean,” said James Gilmore, a professor at the University of Virginia and an 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 long years of releasing Yoplait Greek products that tests indicated should be big successes but almost never were, General Mills finally admitted there was one option left: Executives needed to study the science of manufacturing genuineness.
So they began passing among themselves studies showing that people get a neurological rush when they buy something they believe is authentic, like 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 perfectly into the American dream. What’s 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,” Mr. Clark, who is now the president of United States yogurt at General Mills, told me.
What’s more, when data started coming back from focus groups, Yoplait’s executives became even more enthusiastic. Some customers said they hated the name Oui. Others didn’t 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! Finally, they had engineered their way to authenticity.
So, soon you’ll be able to buy Oui. (The yogurt, that is.) It has a creamy texture and sweet flavor. And 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’ll know that Yoplait’s number crunchers finally figured out the formula for authenticity, and have reclaimed their crown. Le roi des données est mort. Vive le roi.