Finding Their Niche
by Lynn Petrak
Dairy manufacturers use demographics to develop and market products that are truly tailor made.

In a country known for its diversity, the food and beverage market in the United States comprises a growing number of products tailored to certain groups within the population.
From an analogy standpoint, it’s not so much a melting pot out there as it is a pantry stocked with clearly marked items meant for specific usage. “It seems that adding value to products and differentiating products is clearly happening,” says Tom Nagle, senior vice president of marketing for the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
According to Nagle, demographically based products ultimately have been spurred by competition. “I think it’s driven by companies trying to understand what consumer preferences drive a better business proposition,” he explains. “In a traditional commodity business like fluid milk, for instance, you have processors looking at the marketplace and seeing that it is clear consumers will pay more for a certain product.”
Dairy manufacturers that have diversified their product lines along particular consumer lines agree that it all boils down to fulfilling need. Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., says it makes sense to evolve along with your consumer base. “Dannon has a long history of identifying consumer insights and translating them into products that fulfill an unmet need,” he says, citing the introduction of Dannon Fruit-on-the-Bottom yogurt in 1947 for those who didn’t care for the tart taste of plain yogurt and the plethora of subsequent product launches centered on preferences among distinct sets of customers.
Another yogurt maker, one that has based its business on specializing in natural and organic products, also has heeded more narrow demographic trends. Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H., offers a product line that includes traditional varieties of spoonable and drinkable yogurts as well as yogurts designed for young consumers. “I think it’s an interesting observation that as segments within a population are becoming larger and have distinctive needs, marketers try to serve their needs with products incremental to their product line for those with unmet needs. There is demand for it,” says Pete Lewis, product manager for the company’s youth line of yogurts. “We have a product targeted specifically for babies and toddlers and others for those above that age range and we look at them differently in how we position and market them.”
Dairy products and accompanying marketing programs geared toward certain ethnic groups also are designed around the preferences of buyers. “We market pretty much by region and by customer, with what works well with the concentration in an area,” says Sonny Dickinson, vice president of Eastern region sales for Denver-based Colorado Ranchers Dairy Products Inc., which makes authentic Hispanic-style cheeses. Marketed under the Queso Campesino name, these products aim to appeal to those with Latino roots who have emigrated to the United States, as well as to a growing number of other Americans. “As a company,” Dickinson says, “we are committed to helping people understand and adjust to the environment they are in and we try to do that through products and promotions.”
For whatever group a dairy product is targeted to, Nagle says that for it to be successful, it has to truly deliver on the defined need. “It is product formulation that actually aligns with a real consumer need and it is how the product is presented to the consumer,” he says. “That includes not just packaging, but brand identity, merchandising, advertising and the whole marketing mix.”
The crux of all that? Research conducted by manufacturers as well as data offered by industry organizations like IDFA and others. Nagle emphasizes: “You can’t do this without market research.”
Little Mouths, Big Market
One of the most notable and research-based niches in the dairy industry is the youth market. Compared to a generation ago, which grew up with only a few kid-oriented brands, young people now are wooed by all types of food and beverage marketers.
“Today’s youth is smarter and are more educated consumers than ever before. This is primarily a result of the media that has proliferated and fractured at the same time it has become subservient to the consumer,” observes Stan Harris, chief marketing officer for Bravo Foods International Corp, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based manufacturer of flavored milks, including the Slammers® line for youngsters.
Dairy products that appeal to kids — from babies 6 months old all the way to teenagers — certainly run the gamut. Indeed, items for youngsters are evident in nearly ever dairy sector.
The yogurt category, arguably, is one of the earliest and most prolific innovators, with manufacturers attracting children through flavors, sizes and packages that appealed to their tastes. Major brands like Dannon and Yoplait (a division of General Mills) introduced specialty kid-friendly yogurts more than a decade ago, as sub-brands like Danimals and Go-Gurt, respectively, struck a chord among youngsters and their parents and caregivers.
“In the historical development of the U.S. yogurt market, very few of the early adopters were kids, despite the obvious nutritional benefits of a food product like yogurt for the healthy development of kids,” Neuwirth says. “In large part, this is because no companies had developed products specifically for kids, and perhaps moms didn’t think about the benefits of a product that they chose for themselves was also right for their kids. With this insight, we developed the Danimals brand in the 1990s and its unique packaging that appeals to kids and lets mom know that this is a great-tasting and nutritious snack for kids.”
It wasn’t long before more varieties of Danimals came to the fore, such as drinkable Danimals and Danimals with mix-in sprinkles, among others. The Yoplait brand, too, continually added new items, such as Trix® branded yogurt (a tie-in to its parent company’s cereal) and Go-Gurt featuring movie and other licensed character tie-ins.
Today, those product lines have been amplified as well, with SKUs for different age brackets. Compare Danimals for youngsters with Dannon’s XL yogurt smoothie, with a sleek black bottle and a larger size designed to appeal to older kids. “Even within the kids segment of yogurt, there is niching  — or perhaps splintering  — taking place based on considerations such as age and packaging format. Within the kids segment, examples of this splintering are cups, drinks and tubes, and they may not be mutually exclusive,” Neuwirth says. “Obviously the organic and natural segment is also a meaningful consideration for moms. Each sub-segment, or fragment, brings added value to the consumer and the category.”
When it comes to organic and natural, Stonyfield Farm offers yogurts that are both natural and organic and that meet a range of age groups within the youth market. The company’s YoBaby line of yogurt, for instance, is entirely driven by a particular base, namely babies and toddlers via their gatekeepers.
“YoBaby is made with whole milk, because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends whole milk in dairy for kids up to age 2,” Lewis explains, adding that the package featuring a baby’s face and the word  “baby” is a clear signal to parents that the product is just for their infants and toddlers. “It’s a unique item — it’s more of a baby food in the yogurt section.”
Reflecting the demographic splintering trend, Stonyfield Farm is now branching out. In addition to a new YoBaby milk and cereal variety with added DHA, the company is working on its products and programs aimed at older youths. “Kids yogurt as a category wasn’t really popular until the last several years and I suspect kids ages five or six today, with those used to eating or drinking yogurt, will grow,” Lewis says. Stonyfield Farm’s response to that trend is a line of YoKids yogurt products, set to be unveiled by this fall.
Beyond yogurt, other dairy producers have looked to capitalize on the power of youth. As Nagle points out, the milk gallon has long been and likely will continue to be the consummate dairy staple for families, but that doesn’t mean fluid milk manufacturers haven’t learned how to sell their product in enticing, kid-friendly formats. He uses the example of string cheese: “The moment someone says that a kid package for milk is the white gallon, I’ll tell them that it’s like the mozzarella cheese guys saying the best package for kids is a two-pound block of cheese.”
Over the past decade, the advent of single-serve flavored milks fueled new excitement in fluid milk, and a lot of the success of that sub-category was due in part to the products’ appeal among smaller drinkers. Once dairies figured out that plastic milk bottles and their accompanying colorful sleeves with high-impact graphics caught consumers’ eyes, it wasn’t long before they determined that young milk consumers could be enticed to ask for such products through the use of fun flavors and splashy bottles.
To be sure, although single-serve and larger bottles of milk in flavors like chocolate and strawberry, and more exotic varieties like candy bar-inspired flavors, are purchased by many adults, they have an undeniable cache among younger consumers.
Some of the latest entries in flavored milk aimed at kids come from Bravo Foods, which recently teamed up with General Mills for a new Slammers Trix and Cocoa Puffs® flavored milk line inspired by General Mills cereals.
“Kids everywhere know and love the Trix Rabbit and Sunny the Cuckoo Bird, the spokes-characters for Trix and Cocoa Puffs respectively,” Harris says. “We’ve all had the experience of enjoying the milk at the bottom of our cereal bowl, and now everyone can enjoy this great tasting flavor in a better-for-you real milk drink.”
Other dairy categories also include several types of products directed squarely at youngsters. Several types of kid-friendly cheeses are on the market, for example, from traditional string cheese to snacking cheeses like Sargento Foods’ star and moon-shaped cheeses, launched a couple of years ago.
Similarly, although kid-themed products aren’t anything new in ice cream and novelties, such highly targeted frozen treats continue to expand and in some respects, splinter into different segments. Novelties inspired by the television show “Fear Factor” from the Good Humor brand, for instance — with designs like eyeballs and creepy bugs — are likely to be clamored for by older children.
What Women Want
While those younger than 18 get a lot of attention in R&D and marketing departments in dairy companies, so too do health-conscious adults, especially women watching their diet from a nutrition or weight-loss perspective.
Again, there are many better-for-you products to be found in the yogurt category. Yoplait’s Nouriche smoothie, for example, is largely directed at nutrition-minded female consumers with a product formulation, package and supporting advertising and marketing efforts designed to meet a women’s dietary and lifestyle needs.
Dannon also has products that have a definite appeal among women. “Health-oriented women are increasingly looking to foods as a means to help them feel better and accomplish their goals, whether it be weight management or digestive regularity,” Neuwirth says. “Products and their marketing that are carefully conceived to deliver a single-minded proposition that is relevant to active, health-conscious women are doing very well.”
To that end, Dannon’s Light & Fit and Activia yogurts are geared toward those looking for certain dietary impacts, many of whom are female consumers. “Light & Fit is all about being your partner in weight management, which is a major theme in the lives of active, health-oriented women. The great taste, nutrient values and 70 calories benefit all resonate in an on-the-go package, whether it be a spoonable product or a drinkable,” Neuwirth says. “As the first probiotic lowfat yogurt, Activia helps to regulate your digestive system, which is of keen interest to many women and men in this country.”
Another better-for-you dairy category that has surged remarkably is ice cream. Major brands like Dreyer’s/Edy’s, Good Humor-Breyers and Dean Foods, in addition to large regional brands like Pierre’s French Ice Cream and the Smith Dairy Ruggles line, have broad and ever-expanding better-for-you offerings. The latest “darlings” among ice cream manufacturers are no-sugar-added (NSA) and lowfat varieties, continuing explorations launches during the low-carb craze.
Not to be overlooked are other dairy categories that include a range of better-for-you alternatives for women and other core consumers, such as lowfat cheese, fortified cottage cheese and reduced fat milks, Nagle, for his part, sees more opportunities for milk; even thought it is a vitamin-packed functional beverage in its own right, there are opportunities to attract more health-oriented adults and diet-oriented women. “There has been work in the industry on special formulations that meet the needs of kids and pregnant women,” he says. “You see it in other product categories, and it seems fluid milk is headed more in that direction.”
Leveraging Diversity
Another area of demographically-driven markets is the ethnic market. Itself quite diverse, the ethnic market includes a growing number of dairy products developed for people of a certain heritage.
As the Italian market has become mainstream, the Hispanic market is now the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, with a retail and foodservice presence to show it.
In the supermarket, food is moving out of the aisle reserved for taco shells and salsa and integrated more into other food categories. Today’s cheese cases and delis, for example, include more Hispanic-style cheeses, from national brands like Kraft as well as regional producers.
Queso Campesino is one brand that is simultaneously marketing its authentic Hispanic cheeses to its core base and expanding its business among a rapidly growing segment of “traditional” American consumers.  The Hispanic-owned company regularly adds to its offering of authentic cheese, such as its new cotija, a hard cheese similar to parmesan.
According to Dickinson, new product development is based on stated needs and takes into account different factors. It is on the promotion side, he says, where such distinctions most often come into play. “Say you have first generation [Hispanic immigrant consumers] — you’re going to position your products differently than you would on the second generation,” he says, adding that second-generation Latinos are seeking convenience-oriented products like exact-weight and grated cheeses to suit their busy lifestyles.
The team at Queso Campesino also takes into account subtle but key differences in consumers in its retail merchandising efforts. “When the Hispanic customers — especially the Mexican customers, which is the largest category — see cotija, they know what it is,” Dickinson explains. “But they are still learning to shop the store and have to get used to where it is.”
The burgeoning Hispanic population in the United States has spurred other dairy manufacturers to develop new tailored products and promotions.. Some flavored milk companies, for instance, are launching Hispanic-style flavors, like mango or banana, while groups like IDFA help marketers learn about the important regional and ethnic differences within the Hispanic market.
Ice cream companies also are reaching out to Latinos, with products like Tampico (manufactured by Dean Foods) becoming available in flavors like guava and coconut. Yogurt makers, too, are keeping Hispanic consumers in mind. “For the first time in Dannon’s history, we started to advertise to U.S. Hispanics when we launched Activia earlier this year,” Neuwirth says. “We have seen a very positive initial response to this.”
What About the Others?
With products aimed at children, women, older adults, those on restricted diets and Hispanic consumers, where does that leave other demographic groups, such as adult men or young adults in their 20s?
There are plenty of products to suit their needs as well, indicated in dairy products’ vast flavor, packaging and nutrient profile differences. “Men are indeed coming around to enjoy more yogurt,” Neuwirth says. “We know that men enjoy all of our products to varying degrees, versus their female counterparts.”
Nagle says other consumer groups are hardly forgotten. “That doesn’t mean that companies aren’t thinking about those segments,” he says, sharing an example. “Single-serve flavored milks aren’t just a story about teenagers and youths, but about adult men and women, depending on the venue.”  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
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