Chobani’s Australian story: sampling, social media and a Russian air force plane
Marketing chats with Chobani’s Emily Houlahan, about the brand’s first three years in the Australian market, a journey that has involved an unwavering commitment to product, handing out a million samples in one year, and even a Russian air force plane.
By late 2011, Chobani’s success in the US had resulted in its place as the rockstar of the yoghurt category, with founder Hamdi Ulukaya its face. A focus on below-the-line strategies of sampling and social media meant success came as organic growth, and six years after purchasing his first defunct yoghurt factory in New York, Ulukaya’s first international expansion for his brand was Australia.
It started with the purchase of Bead Foods, makers of Gippsland Dairy, in November 2011 by Chobani’s parent company Agro Farma.
The early days, a year or so of distribution before the acquired factory was operational, were “crazy”, says Emily Houlahan, Chobani’s head of communications, about the brand’s launch in Australia.
“We flew in yoghurt for a whole year. We flew in ever single tub for a year until the Chobani factory was up and running.”
“You’ve got no idea,” Houlahan laughs when we suggest that would have been a fun logistical operation.
A piece of machinery (a filler) was flown in from France by Russian military plane, because the company didn’t want to wait six weeks for a boat.
“Those are the sort of lengths we’ve gone to to keep up with demand and establish the brand in Australia,” Houlahan says.
The dedication seems to be paying off.
Chobani is now the fastest growing yoghurt brand in Australia, selling 25,000 cases per day – up from 25,000 per week initially. Within 12 months of distribution one in five Australian households had a pot of Chobani in its fridge, and the brand has tripled its shelf space in the past two years.
M: Tell us about the product – why is it different to other yoghurt?
EH: The normal way [to make yoghurt] is one litre of milk to one litre of yoghurt – you just add culture and a couple of hours later it’s ready. But our process takes much longer because of a straining process, so that’s what makes us different.
It started off [in the US] being supplied to niche delis and food stores, but then got retailers’ interest, and from there just went nuts. From nothing to the number one selling yogurt brand in America in the space of four years without any above-the-line advertising, it was just through social media and word of mouth.
It’s a pretty amazing rags to riches story. Hamdi [Ulukaya, founder] has become a bit of a public figure there.
M: Was it an established category in the US before Hamdi started?
EH: There were strained yogurts on the market but they hadn’t gone mainstream. The main things that contributed to our success was that he didn’t want it ranged in the Greek section, because that would keep it niche, he wanted it ranged with the Yoplaits and the Skis in the mainstream section. He saw it very much as a better product for the masses, so he was quite determined on that particular point.
M: Also because he’s not Greek, I suppose.
EH: Well no, he’s Turkish, right.
Australia was the first international market. He came out here and bought an existing dairy company. It was Bead Foods at the time, makers of Gippsland Dairy, and he recognised that they knew how to make yoghurt which was a common theme with Chobani – they did things the right way, not the easy way.
M: How did that grass-roots theme carry to the Australian launch?
EH: Knowing that they’ve achieved so much through this grass roots outreach, literally receiving letter from fans in the US, when we launched in Australia we recognised that’s what we had to replicate, so our investments have been very much focused on sampling. We have a field marketing team in Sydney and Melbourne, to get pots in people’s hands. We just need them to try the product and then the product does the rest.
At the end of the year we’re aiming to have sampled a million pots, which is no mean feat.
And then of course, social media has been a contributor to our growth in Australia.
M: What role does social play? Is it all about the personality?
EH: That plays a large part of it. It is about top-notch customer service, but it’s also about conversation. That’s at the heart of everything we do because the thing we very much realised is that the consumer defines our brand, so it’s very much an opportunity to have conversations with our fans and surprise and delight them or even just acknowledging their tweet or their Facebook comment.
That’s a great benefit to us, as well, because it’s a feedback loop, so that’s an amazing opportunity for us in terms of innovation. New flavour requests is a great example. For the last 12 months we’ve just been inundated with requests for coconut Chobani, so we launched coconut at the end of July.
M: So that’s solely through social, no traditional market research?
EH: No, through social.
M: What paid advertising has Chobani done, if any?
EH: We had a global master brand launch at the start of the year, called ‘Go Real’, and that campaign was led by the US. The ads were actually shot in Australia, and they ran in the US and here, but that’s the only above the line we’ve done. And actually, from what we can estimate from our data, social media is 9.6 times more effective than TV was, so that’s where we’ve put our focus for this year.
M: Obviously product is very important, but what are the other key factors of success for Chobani in Australia?
EH: Local manufacturing that just works, we have fantastic relationships with our retailers, and we knew our target really well.
We did a lot of work on really identifying who we were going after, instead of going after everyone, we were very specific in who we targeted initially.
We over-indexed with young transitionals, which are the SINKs and DINKs, which are really hard for retailers to get to. We delivered that group. Now we’ve kind of regressed to the mean and followed the trends in the yoghurt category in terms of popularity among different demographic groups. But that group of young transitionals were the early adopters. Targeting them helped take Chobani to everyone.
That goes hand in hand with our social media as well. They’re the ones on Instagram, on Facebook. They’re our ‘hoodies’ – healthy foodies – which is just a name we’ve come up with. They’re the people that are snapping their food on Instagram, they’re the ones taking a selfie of themselves in their gym gear on a Saturday, or have just been cycling with their cycling club and are sipping lattes. You can imagine the sort of person they are. And they’re very social.