Sometimes the milk business is like my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.
Both are as old as the hills and both have earned broad popularity by offering something wholesome and comforting. For milk that means fundamental nutrition and familiarity, and for Chicago’s National League club, 130 years of tradition and the timelessness of Wrigley Field.
The term Lovable Losers is often applied to the Cubs. Milk is certainly loveable to most Americans, and it’s also fair to say that for several decades it has been on the losing end of consumption trends. The competition is not as direct as in baseball, but milk has lost market share to fizzy and flashy competitors.
If I’ve sold you on the analogy so far, let’s now look at the 2007 season, first for the Cubs, and then for milk.
During the off season, the Cubs organization positioned itself for a major transformation. A manager with a winning track record was put in charge of the clubhouse. Nearly a billon dollars was spent to acquire the top free agents in baseball. The Chicago Cubs’ 99-year championship drought was coming to an end, and everyone knew it.
But what happened? As the first quarter of the season comes to a close, the Cubs are looking mediocre at best-below .500, and hovering six or seven games back in what looks like one of baseball’s weakest divisions.
This is nothing new for resident fans at Wrigley Field, most of whom begin to accept this futility after following the team for 20 or 30 years. Managers come and go, and around mid-July each year, if not sooner, the slogan “wait until next year” is dragged out, and we all start thinking about football season.
Then there’s milk.
Milk actually had a pivotal season in 2006, on the heels of some modest success in 2005. Overall milk sales were up 1% in 2006. That’s not much of a baseball stat, but for milk it marked the end of its drought-sustained measurable growth, as opposed to flat or declining annual sales. Insiders and analysts pointed to several key factors that led to milk’s newfound prowess: fairly stable prices, greater consumer interest in nutrition, and the cumulative effect of award-winning generic marketing.
As January rolled around the milk business was looking forward to another great season. Key competitors were still slumping, and milk reinforcements were being called up from the minors. The message about weight loss had become the ace of the staff, and a new cleanup hitter, Think About Your Drink, was joining the team. Milk would win big in 2007.
How is that working out? Well, milk sales in the first quarter are still growing, but maybe not quite as much as last season. Supplies are tight, so prices are creeping up, and just last month, under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, the industry agreed to a less aggressive approach with the milk and weight loss message.
The question for milk becomes whether these conditions are like losing an All-Star first baseman, or more like having a right fielder play with sore Achilles tendon?
The Cubs just need to start hitting and they might still have a shot at their division. Milk’s management is thinking more long term, and the race is not so clearly defined, but some of the other beverage players are still in trouble. Hopefully milk can find what it needs (Think About Your Drink, a positive effect of the no-rBST movement?) to keep momentum moving in the right direction this year, and for many seasons to come.