A Tale of Two Yoghurts

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1919 and 1965

1066 and All That remains one of the Brand Historian’s favourite books, celebrating if not all the English history that actually happened, then at least all the English history that we can remember. One of the gags from Sellers and Yeatman’s hilarious, yet perceptive text is the description of the two sides who contended the English Civil War: The Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic, whereas the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive. It’s a wonderfully poetic description which resonates with me in the function versus emotion branding battles of the last century: P&G’s Ariel against Lever’s Persil, or Shell Power against BP Ultimate. But this clever dichotomy is particularly apposite to the story of the two brands that built the yoghurt market.

Stories of the medical efficacy of thickened fermented milk started circulating in early modern Europe. A particularly desperate King Francois I of France had been suffering with incurable diarrhoea when a doctor from the household of his ally, Suleiman the Magnificent suggested he try a few spoonfuls of yoghurt which soon produced much comfort and relief.

But it was at the beginning of the 20th century when yoghurt became one of the first functional foods to really take off. Ilya Mechnikov was a Russian scientist and Nobel Prize winner working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who was convinced that the long lifespan of Bulgarian peasants was down to their daily consumption of a spoonful of Lactobacillus and began to popularise the idea. Inspired by what he’d heard and what he knew from his upbringing as a Sephardic Jew in Salonika, Isaac Carasso set up a small yoghurt business in Barcelona and called it Danone, after his young son Daniel. Shortly afterwards the family moved over the border into France.

Danone’s journey from the 1920s to become one of the great empires of nutrition with outposts in over 120 countries has been an eventful one. Interrupted by the Second World War when the family had to outrun the Nazis, Carasso setup a new business in the United States called, to suit local tastes, Dannon. After the war, Danone returned to France and merged with Gervais, a Normandy cheese business famous for its small pots called petit-suisses. Gervais-Danone was subsequently absorbed into BSN, a food, drink, brewing and packaging conglomerate. It might have got lost in the portfolio, but to quote Sellers and Yeatman, it was Danone who came out on top, becoming the heart of a global health and nutrition business, powered by its pillar brands: Activia, Actimel, Alpro and Nutricia. The mission would be supported with the health-giving magic margins of its water brands, Evian and Volvic.

Having watched the development of Danone over the years, I’ve always thought that there was something of the repressed Puritan about it and the white-coated nutritional stormtroopers who throng its Institutes on many continents. A good test of brand personality is to imagine the kind of party a brand would throw and whether you would want an invitation. I certainly can imagine the Danone party, but I’m not sure I’m ready for a do at a sanatorium just yet. 

Yoplait is the other great Gallic yoghurt which built the market, but with a suck of the spoon that is decidedly more sensual, it has always been much more my kind of party. Whilst Danone was launched amidst the austerity of the years immediately after the Great War, Yoplait is a brand of the 1960s and has always radiated a bright, sunny confidence. Launched in 1965, Yoplait was the result of six independent French co-operative dairies coming together to move down the supply chain and make more money for their farmer-members. Yoplait’s Petite Fleur logo had six petals, each representing one of its founding creameries.

Taking advantage of Danone’s merger and acquisition odyssey, Yoplait grew rapidly in France with an innovative range of product brands like Petits Filous, Silhouette, Yop and Calin. Majoring on fruit, taste and enjoyment and reflecting changing consumer lifestyles, Yoplait was modern, chic and just a little bit sexy. International development facilitated by licensing the brand and strong product innovation like the cleverly packaged Frubes, helped Yoplait become the other global brand of yoghurt in the world’s fast growing rows of chiller cabinets, especially in North America.

The United States has been a huge market for Danone and Yoplait, who successfully introduced the yoghurt pot to breakfast tables to compete with the likes of Eggo and Kellogg’s cereals. But in the last decade, Danone and Yoplait’s dominance has been successfully challenged by an insurgent which has taken the yoghurt category back to its Balkan roots.

Hamdi Ulukaya’s Chobani is a thick, Greek yoghurt with a brand wrapper which mixes provenance, craft skills, taste and lifestyle in a compelling package that millennials love. Both incumbents have been knocked off balance, but perhaps not surprisingly it is the more Cavalier-spirited Yoplait that has lost most share. Nutrition and taste (or taste and nutrition) have been and will continue to be the defining axes of the yoghurt market, but the success of Chobani shows how brand leaders in established markets need to keep their eyes open for New Model competitors, be they Roundhead or Cavalier flavoured.

Music from 1965

Toujours des Beaux Jours Sheila

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