Why Chobani Is Reinventing Itself—and Why It Had No Choice

When too many imitators spoil the category

Chobani's new look is inspired by 19th century American folk art. Chobani

Head to the yogurt aisle of most any grocery store, and you’re bound to see some variation of the standard trade dress: A white plastic cup with a foil top. Most all of those cups will feature a photo of a piece of fruit, the colors bumped up to psychedelic vividness: a brazenly blue blueberry, a riotously red strawberry, and so on. Most of those cups will be priced about the same and, chances are, they’ll feature the same buzzwords, too, including “natural” and “creamy.”

In fact, few foods on the shelf today exhibit the sheer sameness of yogurt. And that has Peter McGuinness pretty whipped up. “It makes it confusing,” he says. “There are too many SKUs and too much similarity.”

McGuinness is in a position to know. As the chief marketing and commercial officer of Chobani, he helms a brand that has both revolutionized and terrorized the yogurt category over the last decade by pushing Greek yogurt from a mere 1 percent of the segment to roughly half of it. But Chobani’s leadership has come at a price: “Virtually everybody’s copied us,” McGuinness says. “I’m not here to pick on the competition, but it’s not been good for the category.”

McGuinness might not be picking on his competition, though he may be about to scare them all over again. Today, Chobani is going public with a comprehensive reimagining of its brand identity that will, it maintains, position the yogurt giant for the next decade.

For one thing, Chobani has moved beyond its identity as just a yogurt company and is now a “food-focused wellness company,” focused around the utopian-sounding axiom of: “Fighting for happily ever after.” This broader positioning will be evident on the company’s web site and in new advertising to commence next year—advertising that will promote the overall nutritional benefits of yogurt, tout its many uses including as a substitute for recipe ingredients like sour cream, and encourage consumers to eat yogurt throughout the day with products like its Flip snacks.

But the most visible manifestation of Chobani’s brand evolution will be where most people see it: on store shelves. The company has completely redesigned its packaging, tossing out the usual white cups with the fruit photos in favor of a design inspired by 19th century American folk art, featuring a color palette borrowed from leaves and flowers and bark, and illustrations reminiscent of old seed catalogs.

Overall, McGuinness says, these new initiatives are a response to Chobani being “not happy with where the category is” and, if all goes as planned, the measures will “bring the specialness back” to yogurt.

No choice but to change

It’s anyone’s guess how to measure specialness, but one thing’s clear: Chobani had to do something. While the $2 billion brand is still very healthy—it overtook General Mills’ Yoplait last year to become the No. 1 yogurt brand in America, and its topline growth for 2017 is up by double digits—Chobani’s ambitious plans come at a time when the yogurt category has soured a bit.

Sales of spoonable yogurt have slipped 4.4 percent since last year, according to Mintel data, and even the mighty Greek yogurt segment (one that Chobani rules with a 40 percent market share) just isn’t what it used to be. Mintel’s 2017 report on yogurt and yogurt drinks states unequivocally that Greek yogurt’s “novelty … wore off.”

Part of the reason for this situation is, no doubt, that there are only so many Americans with a taste for yogurt in the first place. But the larger part of it is that Chobani’s own innovations set in motion a competitive response that helped produce the quagmire it’s now trying to extricate itself from.

When Chobani hit the market in 2007, most Americans had no idea what Greek yogurt was. Chobani turned heads with a product that was richer and tangier than regular yogurts, while also being lower in sodium and higher in protein. The health benefits—real and perceived—helped drive Greek yogurt from a mere 1 percent of the yogurt category to roughly half of it, while simultaneously driving Chobani into household-name status.

In the process, however, Chobani spawned a slew of imitators—Stonyfield Farm rushed to market with Oikos Greek Yogurt in 2007, and Dannon Greek appeared on shelves three years later. Yoplait has a Greek variety, as do grocery-chain brands like Kroger. Meanwhile, even Chobani extensions like Flip (a snack product that lets the consumer dump toppings like almonds, raisins, walnuts and cranberries into the yogurt) have been countered by the likes of Yoplait Dippers from General Mills.

“Ten years ago, when [Chobani] launched, it disrupted the yogurt category,” said Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group. “These guys disrupted the market and grew their category dramatically and smartly—[but] a lot of their competition has copied them.” The result, he said, is “the category is overly complicated, [and] there is a sameness to the way [these brands] appear on the shelf.”

“So in order to stay ahead of the curve,” Stibel added, Chobani “had to do something. They didn’t have a choice.”

Back to where it all began

It’s especially significant that Chobani’s response isn’t to introduce something more elaborate, but to return to the brand’s fundamentals. Some of the creative work that will debut next year, McGuinness said, will be “category advertising”—work that stresses not just the Chobani brand, but “the benefits of yogurt as a nutrient-dense food.”

This marketing direction, adds Chobani CCO Leland Maschmeyer, dovetails with the brand’s broader positioning as a wellness company. “While our product is yogurt,” he said, “our business has always been wellness—nutritional and community wellness, and how food can be a source of good in the world.”

And according to Maschmeyer, wellness was also the guiding force in the new packaging. While Chobani debuted a decade ago, it staked its identity on being organic and natural. Seeking to evoke those ideals in its new packaging, Maschmeyer and his team found themselves drawn to the folk art of the 1800s—“hand-painted artwork and color palettes that come from nature,” as he puts it. Chobani didn’t just scrap the white plastic, it got rid of its old typeface and block-style lettering in favor of a serif font that’s softer and heavy on the lower-case letters. Browns and off-whites predominate and, most noticeably, the fruit is rendered in a hand-painted style that actually celebrates the natural imperfections of fruit.

“When you have a strawberry [on the cup] that’s too perfect, it’s plastic,” Maschmeyer explains. “We’ve introduced these imperfections in our brand so it feels more real.”

“This look hasn’t been done in the yogurt aisle,” McGuinness added. “A lot of what this packaging also does is… set us up as a really accessible food company.” Indeed, McGuinness added, the new aesthetic will hopefully position Chobani for its expected move “beyond yogurt”—further details on that to come.

The risks of innovation

Yet even as competitive pressures mandated Chobani’s dramatic response, the company is nevertheless taking risks by breaking with the status quo, problematic as that might have been for the brand. The new packaging “is definitely a big departure from where they were—it’s a bold move,” said Chris Lowery, president and CEO of the Chase Design Group. Even so, he added, “you’re always concerned when you make changes this big.”

While Lowery believes the design is “beautiful,” he also points out that illustrations in lieu of photos can be “polarizing,” and some customers may even think that the contents are actually less natural, not more. There’s also the basic problem of eliminating a shelf appearance that shoppers are already accustomed to. Nevertheless, he added, the new look—and, by association, the new positioning in general—clearly move Chobani away from the “big food” identity that it’s eager to steer clear of.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” Lowery added. “Because, if they are successful with this, people will look at them as an image leader in terms of how they did their packaging, [and] a lot of other people will make bolder moves.”

In other words, the competition will start imitating all over again, and Chobani will have to switch things up yet again. For now, however, McGuinness feels confident that this latest strategy will put Chobani on firm footing for the coming years. “This is really a new articulation of what our ethos has always been,” he said. “Yogurt’s one of those beautiful foods that just got lost, and we want to bring that back.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.