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In food wars, Greek yogurt takes palates by storm

Greek yogurt's rise from niche dairy curiosity to mega-seller is a triumph of marketing. The product, which is strained through cheesecloth to produce a thicker, creamy yogurt, has been around for centuries. But the marketing push is new.


The post of Greek finance minister is not an enviable job. There's the debt crisis to manage. The irate Germans. Not to mention the ever-present threat of dairy products.

Last weekend, an elderly man confronted Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos about the country's planned austerity measures and expressed his rage with yogurt. In Greece, hurling the creamy substance at public figures has become a popular form of protest – so common, it now has its own word: yiaourtoma.

As the Greek economy dominates headlines around the world, another story has emerged: the rise of Greek yogurt. This unlikely symbol of political discontent is being thrown at North American consumers in unprecedented quantities. Suddenly, it seems, Greek yogurt is everywhere.

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Its rise from niche dairy curiosity to mega-seller is a triumph of marketing. The product, which is strained through cheesecloth to produce a thicker, creamy yogurt, has been around for centuries. But the marketing push is new.

In only three years, Greek yogurt captured 13 percentage points of market share in the U.S. in its category. Energy drinks, which rose from nothing to a multibillion-dollar empire, took twice that time to log the same amount of growth in the soft-drink category, according to a report from UBS. Greek yogurt has driven the vast majority of sales growth in its category in the United States, and is now pushing into Canada.

Driven by changing health trends, the product's popularity in North America has grown exponentially, with brands racing to sell their own versions. In February, a Greek yogurt commercial shelled out millions to advertise in the Super Bowl, and Ben & Jerry's has introduced a frozen version.

"Greek yogurt brands … have captured market share more quickly than almost any segment in a major food category ever," UBS analyst David Palmer wrote.

Behind this growth is a marketing story that speaks to consumers' fundamentally changing tastes – and their understanding of nutrition. Health-conscious North Americans have been told that high-protein foods are more filling, and people watching their diets have turned to the product, which tastes thicker and has higher protein levels than regular yogurt.

Independent brand Chobani, which launched in the U.S. in 2007, fuelled its rapid growth by marketing the combination of health benefits and a richer taste. A roving truck called the Chomobile gave out samples, to introduce the American palate to the thicker consistency of the yogurt, which is also fat-free.

"There are no sacrifices," Chobani's vice-president of marketing, Doron Stern, said of the message of the campaign. "The sampling effort was really an important, critical part of how we developed success."

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Chobani is now the No. 1 brand in the U.S. by a large margin, followed by Greek brand Fage. More established players, such as Yoplait, have been working to catch up.

Canadian companies watched the U.S. trend and were driven to get on board. Liberté Inc. has sold a Greek yogurt, Méditerranée, since 1984 in both Canada and the U.S. At 10-per-cent fat content, it's closer to its authentic Mediterranean cousin, but Martin Valiquette, general manager at Liberté, said the popularity of the no-fat product in the U.S. was a motivator.

"It was a tsunami in the States," Mr. Valiquette said. Liberté launched its no-fat Greek yogurt in November, 2009.

Like Chobani, Liberté took a marketing strategy that put the emphasis on health, focusing on taste tests in gyms and other spots for health-conscious consumers.

The product found a home with affluent consumers willing to spend on food they perceive as higher quality or more nutritious. The Canadian market was primed, with celebrities such as Dr. Oz touting the probiotic properties of the food. Business began to pick up in late 2010, and Liberté's sales have increased 10 per cent to 12 per cent every month since – more than doubling total growth each year.

"It was right on trend for the Canadian consumer," said Al Lindsay, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. vice-president of brand marketing. The grocery-store chain's President's Choice label launched its Greek yogurt last year.

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"We see a macro trend on the Canadian market around the balance between pleasure of eating and eating healthy foods," said Catherine Fortier, marketing director with Danone Canada, which has advertised its Oikos brand in Canada through a recent TV campaign and by naming Canadian celebrity chefs Martin Juneau and Food Network Canada host Anthony Sedlak as brand ambassadors.

But there has been a significant marketing challenge too: convincing consumers that the yogurt is real food. Its biggest asset – the thick consistency, combined with low or no fat content – has in some ways worked against it as a selling point.

"People are thinking we are putting something weird or artificial in it. … People are really, really skeptical. That's what we have to focus on," Mr. Valiquette said.

If these companies succeed in that message, UBS predicts that it could pose a threat to the breakfast food category. That's something standard yogurt, always seen as a snack food as opposed to a meal replacement, has never achieved.

And while the Canadian market is still small, the growth is notable: according to Nielsen, Greek yogurt now represents just 5.9 per cent of total yogurt volume sales. But that's a big jump from just a year ago, when that volume was at less than 1 per cent. In only a year, President's Choice's Greek brand has become a bigger seller than any of its other yogurt products.

This growth market in Canada is attracting competition. The top U.S. brand, Chobani, has set its sights here, launching its product in the Greater Toronto Area last November. French company Danone began selling its Oikos yogurt in Canada last August.

Canadian companies don't want to lose the yogurt battle, said Liberté's Mr. Valiquette. "They've been very, very quick to develop a reaction plan."

Victory in the coming war will depend on marketing, on which brands capture Canadian consumers' attention. President's Choice recently placed a spread in one of its flyers suggesting that not all Greek yogurt brands are all-natural. Chobani's Mr. Stern hints at similar messaging, suggesting that "not all Greek yogurts are made alike."

Let the yiaourtoma begin.

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