Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness is banking on experiential marketing to grow both his brand—and the $8 billion yogurt category
Peter McGuinness has a lot on his plate—and we’re not just talking about the savory yogurt he’s enjoying at New York City’s Chobani Cafe.
From sampling to sponsorships to Chobani’s flagship retail café, live experiences are driving the brand. “We do events 52 weeks a year,” McGuinness says. “We’re always on the road. Experiences are a big, big part of our marketing [mix].”
And if he has his way, experiential marketing is about to become an even bigger part of it all as Chobani looks to grow its business and the yogurt category overall.
YOU TRY IT, YOU BUY IT
The story is incredible. Since its founding in 2005 by Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani has become the No. 1 Greek yogurt brand in the U.S. (in both market share and sales).
“As the leader, it is our right, role and responsibility to continue to grow the category, which we think is underpenetrated,” McGuinness says. “If you look at Europe and Canada, Americans consume a lot less yogurt, because it is newer here.”
And U.S. consumers eat yogurt primarily in the morning while around the world the product is used at every meal, in many recipes and in many ways. “Americans aren’t using it in all its versatile ways,” McGuinness says.
All of which presents a big opportunity for Chobani, which aims to expand the way consumers use yogurt and enhance the way they feel about it. The goal? Double the $8 billion U.S. yogurt business over the next four years by getting people to consume yogurt in all-new ways, at all-new times and in all-new places.
And that’s where event marketing comes in.
“A huge piece of the puzzle is getting people to try it—we know if we can get people to try it, they will repeat. And that’s a good business model,” he says. “The barriers to trial are awareness, understanding and inspiration, which comes into the event space. If we can do those three things, we will get more people to try. One in two will repeat, and we will grow the business exponentially.”
Chobani yogurt actually costs less than other brands on the market. “Our brand DNA is delicious, nutritious, natural and affordable, which is a big part of it,” he says. The brand is also “direct,” as McGuinness puts it, referring to its stance on the humane treatment of animals and anti-discrimination. And “feisty,” he adds. “We’ll call companies out for use of artificial ingredients. We are definitely full frontal at times.”
Experiential marketing lies at the very essence of Chobani’s mission of creating better food for more people, a mantra that began in its hometown communities in upstate New York and Idaho, where the product is made. And a mantra that is constantly and consistently brought to life via local micro-events that connect the company to Main Streets inside and outside its hometowns. “Community events have been a huge part of this company since Hamdi founded it,” McGuinness says. “There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not at a blood drive, that we’re not in a classroom, at marathons and Special Olympics events. Community events occur with far greater frequency than the big consumer events we do.”
McGuinness calls community events the “unsung heroes” of event marketing. “Those communities are made up of consumers who live around the plants where our product is made, and that transcends local and state government officials, key influencers in the community, but it is also giving back to the community where our plants are,” he says.
Chobani’s event team includes local point people who handle community requests, along with crews for trade and consumer events. A design team ensures events are branded in the Chobani way, and there is a culinary team tied to events under head corporate chef Tim Reardon. “We are small, but very focused. The team understands the brand well and are passionate. We are lean and mean. After all, it doesn’t take an army to move a mountain,” he says.
And he should know. A former Madison Avenue executive, McGuinness worked with Chobani when he was head of Gotham, the New York City agency that launched the brand nationally. “I think Chobani had 43 percent distribution at that point, and was doing a couple hundred million dollars,” he says. McGuinness left the agency and the account when he moved on to run DDB but remained friends with founder Ulukaya. “I have known the brand for a long time, and it is a brand that I relate to.”
When McGuinness joined the company in August 2013, Chobani sales had climbed into the billions and the Greek yogurt business had become much more competitive. “Hamdi said, ‘look, we have to really get serious about marketing.’ As founder and ceo, the brand is very important to him—it is special to him, so it is a big job because you are working with someone who created the company and the brand,” he says.
That’s when event marketing really began to take off.
A TASTE OF THE ACTION
First came the two Chobani Cup Trucks, Chobani’s sampling vehicles on wheels that have traveled the country sampling more than a million Chobani yogurt cups a year for six years. Last year one was retrofitted with new graphics to be lighter, brighter and more on-brand. The second was completely re-fashioned into a mobile café that served up coffee, pre-packed yogurt samples and other yogurt creations inspired by the Chobani SoHo Café in New York City where McGuinness is enjoying that yogurt dish (Concept: GMR Marketing; Build: George P. Johnson). The café, a one-of-a kind Mediterranean yogurt bar opened in 2012 as a showcase for the brand, and was later redesigned to accommodate more savory items on the menu. McGuinness describes it as a test kitchen, inspiration center and innovation center. “It’s the ultimate branded event because it is a wonderful manifestation of the brand both in its physical design and menu,” he says.
That design encompasses reclaimed wood, lots of glass and comfy furniture including a communal table and lounge area. Besides yogurt creations handcrafted by in-house yogurt masters, the menu includes Chobani-infused soups, sandwiches, desserts and seasonal items. There is a yogurt bar, an espresso bar, and the pantry stocks custom Mediterranean spices, oils, nuts and other ingredients for purchase.
Chobani recreated that café at Sundance, where each day it dished out complimentary yogurt-inspired sweet and savory creations such as yogurt-iced madeleine cookies, cinnamon-sugar donuts and coffee cake, artichoke kale dip, butternut squash soup and more, all made with Chobani by chef Reardon. Attendees also could sip on Chobani Blend coffee, tea and espresso drinks, juice up their phones at a charging station and pick up one of the 3,000 pairs of Chobani Park City-branded tech gloves distributed throughout the festival.
“The barriers to trial are awareness, understanding and inspiration, which comes into the event space. If we can do those three things, we will get more people to try. One in two will repeat, and we will grow the business exponentially.”
Grassroots community events and consumer activations are core to the brand. A partnership with Lyft promoting a limited-batch Pumpkin Spice flavor sent the yogurt to Manhattanites’ doors. Within a 12-hour period, the program delivered 1,000 cups via 100 ride requests and received 246 tweets, resulting in more than 773,000 impressions and 44 #ChobaniLyft posts. A #stopsadbreakfast campaign in 12 cities inspired people to trade in their “sad breakfasts” for Chobani Oats, a new product made with whole grain steel-cut oats and fruit. In addition to a pop-up in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and sampling events throughout the city, the brand created video and still content poking fun at sad breakfasts, from burnt toast and bruised bananas to stale coffee.
Chobani also substituted yogurt for sad breakfasts in office refrigerators across Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Minneapolis; in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., pedicabs designed to resemble cups of Chobani oats “cho-ffeured” commuters to work and offered them yogurt to go (Handling agencies: Droga5, GMR Marketing, Weber Shandwick).
“We had Cho-ffeurs who drove people to work and gave them Chobani Oats on the way. It was disruptive and fun. We told people the nutritionals, how we make it, why you should eat it and when you should eat it. In some cases we sampled 3,000 cups in just over 20 minutes. It was absolutely wild,” McGuinness says.
Elsewhere, a month-long grassroots campaign encouraged people to take a break and “flip” open one of its Peanut Butter Dream, Strawberry Summer Crisp or other tasty Flip yogurt packs. The effort leveraged research on America’s break time behaviors, celebrity and influencer participation, grassroots and field marketing, in-store assets and free samples to raise awareness for Flip and the positive impact that results from small moments of solitude. The results: 80 million social media impressions and a lot of mindfulness (Agencies: Weber Shandwick, Opperman Weiss, GMR, MARS).
THE PERFECT BLEND
Sponsorship is another big part of the equation. Chobani renewed its alliance with the Olympics for another six years. The experiential marketing efforts also span activations at industry trade shows and culinary events, including FNCE, the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo and the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor international conference and festival. Chobani has activated at the Chicago Food + Wine Festival and the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where the mountain scenery provides an ideal backdrop for its all-natural creations. At the Rose Bowl, the Chobani Cup Truck dished out McDonald’s Fruit Parfaits made with Chobani Greek Yogurt, which is available at Southern California McDonald’s restaurants. And the Cup Truck also brought actress Jamie Chung to a stop at The Grove in Los Angeles.
McGuinness also executed a Simply 100 campaign, which involved a tie-in with gym partnerships and lifestyle fitness as well as sampling efforts in stores and in gyms. Chobani office volunteers and employees often man these events. More than 30 Chobani employees worked the booth and the Chobani Cup Truck at this year’s Natural Products Expo West. “It’s a great learning experience for employees because they are interacting with consumers, registered dieticians, key influencers and they are sharing our product,” he says. “You can’t run a business from SoHo.”
Sampling 3,000 of its Chobani Meze Dips (80 percent less fat and 65 percent fewer calories than hummus) at Expo West made McGuinness even more of a believer in the power of events. “To watch this phenomenon happen, the light bulb goes off for me that seeing is believing, tasting is believing. I have to get these dips in peoples’ hands. Yes, we do some national awareness stuff, but I can’t capture the essence of that experience in a TV spot. I just can’t,” he says.
The same philosophy applies to Drink Chobani yogurt beverages. Chobani positions the product as a rejuvenating, refreshing Greek yogurt drink that is thinner than a smoothie and contains much less sugar than brands that incorporate protein powder into the mix. “When I sample these or show them to retail partners, everyone universally says ‘Wow, it’s not what I expected,’ so for us to make the current $200 million market become much, much bigger, I’ve got to get those drinks in peoples’ hands.”
All the activations provide fodder for social content on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Instagram. “I think of events as wonderful content generation opportunities that are very authentic and can be repurposed in all sorts of ways,” he says. “I hate when people bucket, and say that this is [just] a physical event. Yes, it is physical, but you are capturing a physical connection that is leading to an emotional response that can manifest itself in social and digital.”
In the meantime, back in SoHo, the Chobani Café, one of the top Instagrammed restaurants in New York City, is bustling with noontime activity. “People see these yogurt creations made with vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds and oats in beautiful glass bowls, and they had never thought of it that way, so they take pictures and post them on Instagram,” McGuinness explains as he finishes his lunch. Like we said, McGuinness has a lot on his plate, but you can be sure that whatever it is, it’s Greek, healthy and tastes pretty darned good.
*This article was originally published in 2016 and is updated periodically