business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

It’s being called the “battle in the dairy case,” with a young aggressor taking on the ruling brands. And it’s prompting impassioned commentary in the grocery aisle, on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The challenger is Greek yogurt, one of the hottest new food categories to hit stores, with sales up a whopping 160% over last year, according to Nielsen statistics. Leading the charge is Chobani, which saw sales skyrocket 225% over a 52-week period, earning the Number 2 spot on Symphony/IRI’s ranking of the most successful new brands of 2010.

The other players in this category include long-established, second-running Fage (pronounced fah-ye), and newer entrants such as Kraft’s Athenos, Yoplait Greek, Greek Gods and Stonyfield Farm’s Oikos product.

For the uninitiated, Greek yogurt is made by straining the liquid whey and water from traditional yogurt. The result is a thicker, more tangy, and creamier yogurt. Here’s how one consumer blogger compared the two consistencies:

“It's like the difference between, say, a Guinness Stout and a Bud Lite.”

It’s also more expensive, costing from $1.25 to $1.99 per container (ranging from 5.3 ounces to 7 ounces), whereas a Dannon Light & Fit can be picked up for 79-cents.

I was encouraged by both a sports trainer and my friend the discerning shopper/dieter to try Greek yogurt for health/diet reasons (more protein/more filling/0% fat options). I am now a complete convert, even though I’m (ahem) a bit older than the target demographic of young women.

What struck me during a recent conversation at the supermarket, being replayed on food blogs and Facebook pages all over the internet, was how this acquired taste prompts such strong reactions.

Just this week the blog epi log announced it was launching a Greek yogurt taste test, and the initial reader comments were emphatic: “Oh, Greek Gods!” and “Fage 2% - no contest.”

And a YouTube video of a blogger’s blind taste test of two Greek yogurts has generated 4,457 hits. (For the record, the female tester recommended Chobani as the “gateway to Greek yogurt” for beginners. Her boyfriend made faces and loathed both choices – it’s a guy thing).

And credit Chobani for capitalizing on this consumer passion to fuel its social media and advertising campaigns. “Real” fans are encouraged to share “real love stories” on its website and Facebook page, and the site makes it simple to upload YouTube videos or photos or even use your webcam. A campaign promo featured one “huge Chobani lover” Stephen Wright, an appealing young cyclist who rode 80 miles through rain, headwinds and lack of directions to see where Chobani was manufactured in Norwich, NY. The clip has generated more than 54,000 views on Chobani’s own YouTube channel.

Meanwhile on the website, this week’s “most liked” submission was a folksy duet by Ruthie and Brandon, a pair of 23-year-old roommates from New York, entitled “CHObsessed.”

Chobani has also forged a strong link with the food blogging community, including a “Featured Blogger of the Week” (using Chobani in recipes, natch.) And it is reaching out to “mommy bloggers” and photo-snapping parents to promote its new yogurt for kids, called “Chobani Champions.”

The result is a real connection across the social networking spectrum, and a great case study on how to engage in a meaningful two-way dialogue with today’s consumer.

(Full disclosure: I favor Chobani 0% Fat Vanilla, and Symphony/IRI is a sponsor of MNB’s occasional Spotlight series.

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