Mayfield Dairy Farms has the best of both worlds. It’s a regional dairy with the backing of a national dairy powerhouse.

Founded in 1910, the Athens, Tenn.-based dairy processor has developed a loyal following in the Southeast United States for its quality milks and ice creams. Mayfield is supported by the investment dollars and marketing muscle of a billion-dollar parent, Dean Foods Co., which acquired the company in 1990.

Mayfield, led by General Manager Mary Williams, is based in the southeast corner of Tennessee, about 55 miles north of the Georgia state line. Besides the milk and ice cream plant in Athens, Mayfield operates an ice cream plant in Birmingham, Ala., and a fluid milk plant in Braselton, Ga. The company distributes products in its home state, and in Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Florida and Louisiana. The last two states are recent additions.

“We’re looking to expand our distribution further into Florida and Louisiana. We’re excited about reactions from consumers,” Williams said.

“Being part of Dean has allowed us to grow, in some years more than others,” said Scottie Mayfield, a grandson of the dairy’s founder and the company’s president emeritus. “We’ve grown geography under the [Dean] umbrella, and Dean continues to encourage us to grow where it makes sense.”

Mayfield’s sales of ice cream products complement two other Dean units. T.G. Lee sells milk in Florida, and Brown’s Dairy sells milk in Louisiana.

While the overall market for ice cream is flat, and sales of gallon jugs of white milk are down, Mayfield and Williams say sales in both categories have increased, and they cite Dean Foods’ initiatives as the reasons.

Earlier this year, Dean Foods created a milk brand called DairyPure that is co-branded with the regional dairies. Strange as it may seem, there was never a national brand of conventional fresh white milk until now. (Organic dairy marketers have created national brands.) Dean created a single UPC for DairyPure which allows the company to work with grocery chains on national promotions and advertising. That’s something groceries could not do easily with multiple regional brands.

Mayfield and its sister dairies on their own can’t match the promotional dollars that Dean has.  So when the parent company puts national advertising dollars behind DairyPure, it heightens brand awareness. The five-point DairyPure pledge includes the promise to test for antibiotics in milk, use milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones, and continual testing for quality.

Dean already had a national brand in TruMoo, its chocolate milk product. TruMoo is co-branded with the regional dairies, and Mayfield has seen benefits, Williams said. TruMoo is the No. 1 chocolate milk brand in the country, she said.

Mayfield will follow that TruMoo and DairyPure template in its upcoming marketing for Orchard Pure orange juice and Ready Leaf teas and lemonades.

Sales and marketing

When talking to new accounts, “we talk about family heritage,” Williams said. “We’ve been doing it for 100 years. We have an appealing lineup and we deliver on taste.”

“Our advantage over the years is that we’ve been very consumer-focused,” Mayfield added. “We’re not a Ben & Jerry’s [a Unilever product] or a Häagen-Dazs [Nestle], but we’re a pretty good value for such a good-quality product. When our retail partners recognize that, they see us as an asset to their portfolio.”

Williams summarized the company’s sales pitch as: quality first, then variety. The company considers itself a manufacturer of premium ice creams that are more expensive than private label versions but less expensive per-ounce than super-premium brands. To back up its quality claim, the dairy can point to the Dean Foods CEO Quality Award for ice cream won by the Birmingham plant in 2013 and 2014. It was selected over Dean Foods’ eight other ice cream plants after a rigorous, year-long judging process.

As for variety, Mayfield makes four styles of vanilla ice cream alone: Homemade Vanilla, Regular Vanilla, French Vanilla and Vanilla Bean.

“If an ice cream manufacturer is good at making the basic (and best-selling) flavors of vanilla and chocolate, then it will be good in other flavors,” Williams said.

To that basic core of vanilla and chocolate, Mayfield offers other popular flavors such as Moose Tracks, Birthday Cake and Banana Split.

mayfield dairy farmsIce cream companies release limited-edition seasonal flavors to keep the category fresh and to build excitement among customers. Sea Salt Caramel Cheesecake ice cream is a new product for the fourth quarter 2015. Recognizing that it had been limited by UPCs and availability in grocers’ frozen section, Mayfield created one UPC for four flavors: Cherry Chocolate Chip, Yellow Brick Road (made with Butterfinger candy bar inclusions) Sea Salt Caramel Cheesecake and Egg Nog Flavored Custard.

Developing new flavors involves multiple parties. Dean Foods’ ice cream divisions come together for meetings with vendors, Williams explained. They look at what’s selling nationally, and they look at regional differences. The parties examine trends inside the United States and in Europe, too. Then, the team picks the flavors it wants to try, and they do taste tests on samples.

“We have a lot of input,” Williams said of the Mayfield division, especially when it comes to regional flavors. “The consumer in the Southeast prefers ice creams with caramel or chocolate ingredients,” she said.

Buttermilk is a regional specialty on the fluid side of the business. While a quart is the largest format for many dairies, Mayfield sell buttermilk in gallon jugs. Scottie Mayfield says he’s in the “buttermilk capital of the world.” Residents of east Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia drink it “as a refreshing beverage,” he said.

The dairy also produces half-pint formats of the cultured beverage to be sold in restaurants. Foodservice customers also buy buttermilk in half-gallons, which they pour into their biscuit and corn bread recipes. Cracker Barrel, Hardee’s and Bojangles are among the restaurants baking made-from-scratch biscuits using Mayfield’s buttermilk.

Another regional favorite is a dairy dessert called Snow Cream, sold in containers and as novelties. It’s a manufactured version of what families make after a snowfall.

“My mom would send us out with a metal mixing bowl [to collect snow],” Mayfield recalled. “Then she would fill it with half-and-half, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla for flavoring and serve the slushy mixture. If you microwave our packaged Snow Cream then chop it up, it’s just like what we had as kids,” he said.

One reason that ice cream sales are flat is that there are so many other dessert and snack options inside and outside the frozen food aisle. Frozen pies, especially around holidays, are one such alternative to ice cream. Gelato, frozen yogurt, and plant-based (including soy) desserts are other competitors. Mayfield does make frozen yogurt in flavors including Heavenly Hash Yogurt, Moose Tracks and Mixed Berry.

Nonfood reasons affecting sales are an emphasis on reducing fat, sugar and calories in the American diet. To address these needs, Mayfield sells a range of products, including no-sugar-added varieties and light ice cream.

According to Dean Foods’ 2014 annual report, 53% of its products are private label and 47% are company brands. An important private label account for Mayfield is Baskin-Robbins. (Headquartered in Canton, Mass., Baskin-Robbins is part of the publicly held Dunkin’ Brands Group.) The Athens plant manufactures the 14-ounce containers sold at retail. Williams said one reason Athens landed that business is because Birmingham had been making the 3-gallon containers for scoop shops in 43 countries.

“They are as strict about quality as we are,” Williams said. “Their business is really growing and we’re excited about that. “

Mayfield added that another reason the company landed the business is that “we can make, on a consistent basis, the high-quality level that Baskin-Robbins wants,” he said. “We have performed for them.”

Mayfield’s goal is to continue to expand, Williams said. One way is to grow the nonretail business, and to that end, Mayfield participates in retail, food and school shows in Tennessee, George, Alabama and the Carolinas (among others) to find new accounts. Foodservice, while not as large as retail (as measured by volume), is still an important niche, Williams said. Mayfield’s sales staff works to get ice cream on restaurant menus throughout the region. The company has added more than 1,000 schools this year for ice cream, she added.

While Dean Foods provides some national marketing muscle, Mayfield also relies on its tried-and-true visitors centers. In the newly updated Athens center, visitors see how milk and ice cream are made; in Braselton, Ga., they see milk being bottled. The centers create word-of-mouth from school groups and tourists. While there is a fee to take the tour (with a free scoop of Mayfield’s ice cream at the end), the centers are run at a break-even point, Williams said. They are stocked with logoed souvenirs and dairy-related items.

Public relations efforts, like television appearances, help, too. Scottie Mayfield is a popular guest on Chattanooga and Knoxville TV stations. He dresses up in a suit and bow tie to talk about the company’s new flavors and promotions. Another popular representative of the dairy is a 20-foot-tall fiberglass cow (there are actually seven of them) named Maggie (who also appears in the company logo). She is booked for store grand openings, parades and festivals throughout the region.

When it comes to purchasing, the decision maker is the 25- to 49-year-old mom, Williams said. (Mayfield added that other family members are “influencers” and they are all consumers.) The company’s pitch to moms is quality and consistency, Williams said.

Social media is one way to reach those buyers. The company has nearly 24,000 likes on its Facebook page.

“We know we have to get into different platforms, like Twitter and Instagram, if it makes sense,” Williams said.

Keeping up with modern marketing methods is as important for growth as developing new flavors of milk and ice cream. And nowadays, when consumers are connected by social media and share good and bad experiences (usually the bad), it is imperative that a food manufacturer be focused on quality and transparency.

 Dean’s DairyPure five-point pledge goes a long way to reassure moms that they are buying wholesome milk products for their families.  The other truth in food marketing is that consumers like to support their local brands. So Mayfield Dairy Farms can play up its local and deep roots in the Southeast while also benefitting from the parent company’s marketing muscle. It’s the best of both worlds. 

Photos by Vito Palmisano