For Kraft and Frito-Lay, Suddenly, Greece Is the Word

Greasy food may be getting the cold shoulder from consumers, but Greek food is hot.

Hummus and Greek yogurt—once confined to niches—are going mainstream, thanks to Kraft and PepsiCo. Kraft, for instance, is rolling out its first Greek yogurt, under its Athenos brand, in California and Midwest grocery stores with a sampling effort. The food giant has significantly upped ad spending on Athenos this year, said brand manager Marshall Hyzdu. Hyzdu said the perceived health advantages of Mediterranean food is one reason, but he added that “taste preferences are evolving.”

Meanwhile, Sabra hummus started advertising on TV for the first time last year. Spots from Strawberry Frog showed adults enjoying the snack with a glass of wine. Sabra is partially owned by PepsiCo’s snack foods division, Frito-Lay, via a joint venture, and it’s also launching new products later this year, said brand manager Mina Penna.

The launches come after Fage, a New York-based marketer, pioneered the Greek yogurt category in 2007 with a print campaign from Ogilvy & Mather featuring the tagline, “Ridiculously thick yogurt.”

In tracked channels, Greek yogurt sales have more than doubled each of the past five years, per Kraft. The number of consumers eating yogurt grew by 60 percent over the past decade, and 1,500 percent for hummus-—a much smaller category—during that same time period, per the NPD Group, which tracks eating habits.

This explains why brands like Sabra are really starting to “dial up the marketing,” Penna said. So far, the outlay has been modest. The food industry spent $11 million advertising Mediterranean foods in all of last year  and $10 million through June of this year, per the Nielsen Co.

The reason, industry observers say, is a combination of perceived health benefits (the so-called Seven Countries Study, which began in 1958, showed that people who ate a Mediterranean diet had the lowest instances of heart disease of the countries studied) and consumers’ demand for foods made with simpler and natural ingredients.

Marketers, of late, have either added new Mediterranean foods to their portfolios or at least played up their use of such ingredients, particularly olive oil. StarKist, for example, recently rolled out a yellowfin tuna pouch flavored with extra virgin olive oil. StarKist marketing director Jennifer Albert said research showed that 75 percent of consumers rate olive oil, a main staple in Mediterranean cuisine, as the healthiest cooking option. “So, as consumers are turning to [EVOO] as the oil of choice in cooking, StarKist is bringing all of its wonderful benefits—taste and health—to our product line,” she said.

The number of new Mediterranean food products being introduced—hummus and yogurt, specifically—spiked from 2006 to 2008, per research by Datamonitor, which tracks new products. That number has trailed off a bit in the last two years (63 and 44 in 2008, versus 42 and 16 in 2009 for the former and latter, respectively). Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of  opportunity for growth, said Mintel’s Lynn Dornblaser.

The food analyst said she has seen even specialty and gourmet food stores like Trader Joe’s join the trend. The latter recently began selling a Mediterranean pasta salad kit with Gemelli pasta, feta cheese, vegetables and garbanzo beans. Aldi, meanwhile, has a Mediterranean olive and cheese dip. “I do see Mediterranean being used as a descriptor more,” she said.