As Dairy Alternatives Grow in Popularity, ‘Got Milk?’ Gets a Modern Makeover

When it comes to food marketing, it's hard to find a brand more iconic

The 'Got Milk?' campaign marks its 25th anniversary this year.
Got Milk?

In 1993, the California Milk Processing Board launched a campaign aimed at reminding people of the importance of milk. A video spot directed by Michael Bay showed a man obsessed with Alexander Hamilton. Photos of the founding father lined his walls, with a bust on his desk and the bullet that killed Hamilton in a glass case in the room. He’s listening to the radio, when the DJ poses the $10,000 question—Who shot Alexander Hamilton?—just as the man stuffs half of a peanut butter sandwich into his mouth.

Immediately, his phone rings, and on the other end is the DJ. He asks the Hamilton obsessee again, this time directly. His mouth still full of sandwich, he blurts out the name “Aaron Burr,” but it’s muddled by his chewing. He tries again, and still, the DJ can’t understand him. He looks to the side of his desk and sees a carton of milk. Thinking he’s found his solution—a glass of milk to wash down the sandwich—he quickly grabs it to pour into a glass. But the carton is practically empty, and the time is up to answer the question. The line goes dead, and two words appear on the screen as it fades to black: “got milk?”

This spot, of course, was the start of something big—specifically, the “Got Milk?” campaign.

The campaign has long evolved since that initial spot. In the late ’90s, print ads for the campaign featured celebrities from Alex Trebek and Whoopi Goldberg to Britney Spears and Kermit the Frog, all rocking a milk mustache. It was the campaign’s early days that helped propel it to its present iconic status, but it’s still going today. The CMPB recently debuted the latest iteration of the campaign, and it’s all about appealing to the next generation of parents.

The result of these efforts is a bilingual campaign (English and Spanish) created by the board’s AOR, Gallegos United, featuring kids—with a glass of milk in hand—lamenting their problems as adults would and citing milk as their energy booster and strength builder. Steve James, the CMPB’s executive director, said the focus on millennial families felt like a natural next step in the “Got Milk?” story.

“We thought that by broadening our goal and target from just moms to millennial parents and their families, we just thought it was a better way to speak to California families in general,” James said. “Families with kids at home are bigger consumers of milk. They’re more likely to have milk in fridge. They’re young parents right now, but they’re really setting cultural trends and, and we wanted to hone in on them.”

John Gallegos, the CEO of Gallegos United, added that part of the campaign’s focus came from identifying millennial families as a primary market for expansion.

“We just felt that we needed to look at where the growth is going to come from,” he said. “To stem decline, we needed to focus on the growth.” Part of zeroing in on that growth meant focusing on diversity—part of the reason Gallegos United, an agency that traditionally focuses on the Hispanic market, was selected as the CMPB’s sole AOR late last year.

“In California, you can see that the growth is coming from a more diverse audience, and you really have to dive into that,” Gallegos said. “From there, find those universal truths and be able to then bring out a campaign or strategy that is culturally attuned to that marketplace. People are coming from different views and different angles, so our approach was to find that universal insight and where milk has the greatest chance.”

in 2018, milk—and milk marketing—is in a different place than it was nearly 25 years ago. Plant-based dairy alternatives, like almond and soy milk, have not only made their way into the market, but have become major players in the space. From 2012 to 2017, milk sales fell 3.5 percent, while dairy alternatives grew by 4 percent, according to CNBC. And as the early 2010s revealed that milk may not be the key ingredient to building healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis it was long believe to have been, its place in the food pyramid has been threatened, too.

“Historically, dairy foods, and milk more than any, were perceived almost reverentially as nature’s perfect food,” Andrew M. Novaković, the E.V. Baker Professor of Agricultural Economics at Cornell University, said. “Providing milk was almost seen as doing god’s work, and people in that industry saw themselves as important gatekeepers to feeding your children.”

Now, milk has been knocked off of that pedestal and is facing competition that has rarely been seen before in industry. The growing ubiquity of products like almond or soy milk means that even an iconic brand like milk—even though it’s distributed by different companies and providers, it has become just that in large part thanks to the “Got Milk?” campaign—means marketing milk is more challenging than ever.

“Twenty-five years ago, when ‘Got Milk?’ launched, our only competition in the refrigerator case was orange juice and carbonated beverages,” James said. “But the universe of choice has really exploded over those years.”

There’s also been a growing consciousness: People care more about embracing a more natural, organic diet and are asking more questions than ever about where their food comes from. “[They] are giving more thought to the food choices that they make,” Michael Neuwirth, senior director, external communication for Danone North America, the parent company of the dairy alternative company Silk, said.

“They’re always looking for great taste, great value, great nourishment and increasingly, more natural and more sustainably-produced foods,” he said. “And I think that resonates with people who are choosing plant-based beverages.”

It’s a definite change from 1993. Then, James said, milk was so ingrained in people’s everyday lives it was something people only really thought about when they ran out of it—hence, “got milk?” Today, it’s more about reinforcing the idea that even with seemingly endless alternatives available, milk is still an essential part of a balanced diet. That change means CMPB and Gallegos had to reevaluate “Got Milk?” for the modern market.

“When ‘Got Milk?’ launched, our only competition in the refrigerator case was orange juice and carbonated beverages,” James said. “People only cared about milk when they didn’t have it. Now, it’s a broader question, and we have to evolve as communicators to speak to people where they are, whether that’s on TV or their digital device. We have to have a campaign that’s more versatile.”

Gallegos agreed.

Attitudes toward milk have shifted, and so has the retail landscape,” he said. “There are so many more choices, and there’s so much more information, thoughts and beliefs out there. That’s why the campaign took a change, not just in the strategy or the creative, but in how it comes to life.”

Both CMPB and Gallegos United are tackling these industrywide changes in part by making “Got Milk?” more multiplatform than ever. The campaign’s website got a revamp, and the ads will also be in out of home, on social media, on television and online videos. Gallegos said expanding the message is one of the key ways they’re keeping milk relevant in an ever-changing industry.

“Where we’re going to have our messaging is really critical,” he said. “So when people have questions—should I be serving my kids milk? How much should I serve them?—and are having that conversation online, in social or search, we’re going to be there.”

James said the brand equity “Got Milk?” has helped build over the years will be hard for competitors to replicate.

“[‘Got Milk?’] just struck a chords with consumers and it’s become part of our vernacular,” James said. “It’s synonymous with milk, and we’re hoping to use that equity to get to people to continue to drinking milk and know it’s something you can always rely on.”

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