The Greek yogurt wars just got uglier. Chobani has long based its advertising and marketing on its products' natural ingredients, but two Chobani ads claiming Dannon and Yoplait's Greek-style yogurts are laced with chlorine and pesticides, respectively, landed the Greek yogurt giant in court this month.
Chobani launched its new ad campaign for Chobani Simply 100 low-calorie Greek yogurt on Jan. 6. One ad mentions Dannon Light and Fit yogurt's use of sucralose, a low-calorie sugar substitute commonly branded as Splenda. A woman sits by a swimming pool and tosses a container of Dannon Light and Fit into the trash as a voiceover says, "Sucralose, why? That stuff has chlorine added to it. … Chobani Simply 100 is the only 100-calorie yogurt sweetened naturally."
A second ad cites Yoplait Greek 100 yogurt's use of potassium sorbate, which is used as a food preservative. "Potassium sorbate, really? That stuff is used to kill bugs," says the voiceover. (Both sucralose and potassium sorbate are approved by the FDA.)
After the ads launched, Dannon's legal counsel sent Chobani a cease and desist letter asking that it discontinue the campaign. "Chobani … is using scare tactics to create confusion about the safety and quality of our products to gain a competitive advantage," said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations at Dannon. On Jan. 11, Chobani filed a federal lawsuit against Dannon asking the court to declare that its advertising is not false or misleading, as Dannon claims.
Similarly, Yoplait's parent company, General Mills, filed a lawsuit over the ad in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on Jan. 10, stating that Chobani's claims are misleading. Mike Siemienas, manager of brand media relations at General Mills, said, "The statements made by Chobani in their latest attempt to sell more yogurt are inaccurate, and we don't think consumers appreciate that kind of approach."
In a statement, Peter McGuinness, Chobani's chief marketing and brand officer, said, "Consumers have the right to know what's in their cup. This campaign is fundamentally about choice—the choice between natural ingredients versus artificial ingredients."
As more consumers seek simplicity in food labeling similar to that of Häagen-Dazs' Five ice cream—which includes up to five simple ingredients like sugar, milk and cream on its labels—the fight over Greek yogurt actually could work in Chobani's favor, regardless of legal outcomes, said Andrea Sullivan, CMO of Interbrand. "Chobani has declared artificial ingredients the enemy, and they're getting some backlash. But people are looking for clarity. They're putting ingredients in real, human terms, and people want plain English."
This isn't the first time brands have staged legal battles over competitors' ingredients.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Pom Wonderful could proceed with legal action against Coca-Cola over the use of the word "pomegranate" on the label of Coca-Cola's Pomegranate Blueberry Minute Maid juice blend, a product that contains only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice.
In 2014, Unilever, maker of Hellmann's and Best Foods mayonnaise, sued startup Hampton Creek Foods, alleging false advertising based on the name of its Just Mayo mayonnaise substitute. Unilever said Just Mayo, which does not contain eggs, was inconsistent with the FDA's definition of mayonnaise, which does. Unilever dropped the lawsuit, but in August 2015, the FDA sent Hampton Creek a warning letter asking for label changes. After Hampton Creek complied in December 2015, the FDA dropped the issue.