Executive Roundtable

Dairy Field talks business with Yoplait’s top managers.
Dairy Field: Discuss your most recent products and how they were developed.
Bob Waldron, president: We’ve had a lot of new products go on the market recently. … We try to keep our core products growing and add new products that will sustain the category. We’ve got so many new products coming out the door from our teams now — Chocolate Whips, Healthy Heart and some beverage lines, our Yoplait Smoothies and Go-Gurt Smoothies.
Lisa Schroeder, VP of R&D: We know consumers come to us for taste, health and convenience. So we’re looking at ways to continue to build on the health story and the credentials of yogurt. We took a look at some of the needs of the American public, and Healthy Heart was a good idea for us. Plant sterols were a good way to deliver that in a great-tasting product.
DF: How did you finally manage to conquer chocolate?
Schroeder: It speaks a lot to how we operate in Yoplait. We are about the team and we work together. We were trying to find ways to crack that code, because marketing and consumer insights always said this would be a great thing to do. So we came together, had some new insights and were successful, and we’re really excited about it. It’s in its early days, but it’s off to a great start.
Waldron: Chocolate is a healthy product in and of itself, too. What are people eating otherwise? They might be eating less-healthy snacks to satisfy a craving, and now we’ve combined that with yogurt, which is generally accepted as very healthy. We take an extra health angle, we take a taste improvement to a historically “sin” food — it’s all good.
DF: Given the technical obstacles, do you think chocolate yogurt is something that won’t be knocked off by private label? 
Waldron: We tend not to think that way. There are a lot of smart competitors out there that may figure this out over time. But to be first with something that consumers really want, that’s what we try to do. Private label plays an important role in the category, as do good competitors. If we’re all innovating, that will raise all ships. I am hoping the breakthrough we’ve made with this new recipe will be something we’ll be able to leverage to continue the growth with consumers and our retailers.
DF: Data presented at the recent Healthy Foods Conference shows yogurt is among the top growth categories in healthy foods, yet probiotics is dragging the ground in public awareness. What can be done to help consumers make the connection?
Waldron: Americans know bacteria by antibiotics. They don’t know it through the power of foods. Looking to the future, yogurt will be in even better shape because there will be more understanding of it. We’ve got to make sure we — as a manufacturer and as an industry — lead the category that way for greater growth and don’t take it for granted. … Our message has been fundamentally about taste and health. And more recently, it’s about health and convenience, and by the way, it tastes great, too. That’s why [Nouriche] took off and was one of the best new products in the last three years in the industry, given the fact it was a trifecta. We stay on the messages of taste and health.
DF: How do things look from the sales side?
Adam Dill, director of category management: What we love the most is the penetration rate only being 72 percent. There’s so much opportunity, and as a salesperson you love selling against that. You love that potential to be able to go and not even know where the top of this is, and to be able to push and keep pushing.
DF: What’s the attitude toward innovation within the large corporate structure of General Mills?
Kevin Schoen, VP of manufacturing: It’s one of the most innovative cultures that you’ll find in the dairy industry. They [General Mills] are very willing to try new things. Some of them might be seen as taking on a bit more risk. But we try new things and some of them work and some of them don’t, and they’re OK with that. It’s a very safe place to come in and innovate.
Camille Gibson, VP of marketing: I think the other big thing is our collaborative team approach. We leverage the marketing people, sales, and research and development, and we focus on what the consumers want, really try to understand what that is.
Waldron: What’s fairly unique, probably with most other dairies or even companies within General Mills, is our tie to an international framework, an affiliate structure, of Yoplait franchises. There’s a great sharing of information. It’s kind of an external perspective is constantly on — what’s happening in Canada, Mexico, France, the U.K. — so we get to understand what’s happening in yogurt around the world, not that it’s always applicable to the U.S., but you’re constantly getting an understanding of different things that are being tried.
DF: So, what does the future hold for Yoplait?
Waldron: A continued focus on growing the core items. Core items for the retailer make up the majority of the space. We’re focusing on new users, but getting the U.S. population to eat more yogurt regularly is really what we see as the primary task. And then, adding on those significant, sustainable new innovations that are going to drive category growth.