Silk is a plant-based products pioneer
Silk introduced its first soy-based beverage decades ago; the Danone North America brand is now a leader in plant-based product innovation that goes well beyond soy
Back in 1977, milk — the genuine dairy kind — was still a mealtime staple for most families. In fact, per-capita fluid milk consumption stood at 247 pounds, a whopping 101 pounds more than the tally in 2018, according to data from the USDA Economic Research Service.
But Steve Demos — an entrepreneur and a plant-based-diet aficionado in Boulder, Colo. — believed there was an untapped opportunity to give consumers an alternative to the dairy beverage staple. So that same year, he started a soy company — WhiteWave Inc. — and debuted the Silk “soymilk” brand at the local level.
Silk soymilk went nationwide in 1996 and realized a growth spurt when grocery store chains placed it in the refrigerated areas where dairy and other comparable products were housed, explains Domenic Borrelli, president of plant-based food and beverage and premium dairy for White Plains, N.Y.- and Broomfield, Colo.-headquartered Danone North America. (The Silk brand, based in Broomfield, has been part of Danone North America operations since 2017.*)
“The plant-based beverage category was rooted in soy, with the main proposition as a plant-based option for traditional dairy milk usage occasions,” he says. “In the U.S., Silk soymilk was one of the first nondairy alternatives to hit store shelves, pioneering the trail for the fast-growing plant-based beverage category we know today.”
That groundbreaking product long has been made from high-quality U.S.-grown soybeans, Borrelli explains. And it eventually saw spinoffs, including Silk Enhanced in Unsweetened and Very Vanilla varieties (2004); Silk Live and Silk Light (2005); and Silk Plus in Fiber, Omega-3 and Bone Health formulations (2006).
“Soymilk has complete plant protein — 5 to 9 grams per serving — and can be a good source of calcium and vitamin D, often with 50% more calcium per serving than dairy milk,” he explains. “Silk soymilk is also a great alternative for people with food sensitivities, including lactose intolerance or nut allergies.”
A journey beyond soy
Although the Silk brand was associated solely with soy-based beverages for decades, it eventually ventured into other plant-based beverage territories. Like all of their soy-based counterparts, the products are Non-GMO Project Verified.
On the beverage front, the brand launched Silk “almondmilk” in 2010, and in 2011, it introduced Silk “coconutmilk,” Borrelli notes. “Cashewmilk” and beverage blends, including the Almond Coconut and almondmilk Protein + Fiber varieties, came next, in 2014.
And in 2016, Silk Nutrition Blends were formalized as a line extension, he says. Offerings include Silk Protein Nutmilk in Original, Vanilla and Chocolate flavors. Silk Omega-3 ALA Almond & Cashew and Silk Prebiotics Almond & Cashew beverages were part of the extension, too, but are no longer offered.
Additional milestones for the brand came in 2013, when it expanded outside of the beverage space with the introduction of Silk soy-based yogurt alternatives, and in 2018, when it began a packaging revitalization project across its whole product line.
The focus on innovation has only strengthened in more recent years. In 2019, for example, Silk entered the “oatmilk” category, beginning with the launch of its Silk Oat Yeah beverages. The Vegan Action-certified half-gallon offerings now come in four varieties: The Plain One, The Vanilla One, The Chocolate One and The 0g Sugar One.
“As the plant-based pioneer, Silk has more than 25 years of expertise in making delicious dairy-free beverages,” said Nikita McKinney, senior brand manager for Silk, in a press release announcing the launch. “Oat Yeah oatmilk is a great choice to help you make progress in the new year, whether you are nut-free, dairy-free or simply a flavor enthusiast. The creamy texture and delicious taste will have you shouting, ‘oat yeah!’”
That same year, Silk expanded the Oat Yeah line beyond beverages. First came a lineup of single-serve yogurt alternatives. Combining oats with live and active cultures, the offering comes in The Vanilla One, The Mixed Berry One, The Strawberry One and The Mango One flavors.
“Oat Yeah oatmilk yogurt alternatives are a tasty option for any person looking to make progress toward their health and wellness goals, whether they have specific dietary needs or are simply looking to try something new,” explained Joshua Cook, brand manager of plant-based yogurt for Silk, in a press release announcing the introduction.
Next came the debut of Oat Yeah creamers. Sold in quart-sized cartons, they are available in two varieties: The Vanilla One and The Oatmeal Cookie One.
“Oatmilk first gained popularity with coffee lovers in lattes from their favorite coffee shops,” said Martha Opela, senior brand manager of better-for-you creamers for Silk, at the time of the launch. “They’re deliciously creamy, gluten- and nut-free for those with food sensitivities, and are entirely plant-based versus traditional dairy creamers.”
The latest addition to the Oat Yeah line, meanwhile, is an oatmilk beverage with zero grams of sugar.
“By introducing an oatmilk with zero grams of sugar, we continue to bring innovative options to meet ever-evolving consumer preferences,” said Travis Hayes, brand manager for Silk, when the product debuted. “Oat Yeah The 0g Sugar One combines an ultra-creamy texture and balanced taste for versatility. It’s delicious when sipped cold on its own; it serves as an excellent dairy milk alternative in recipes; and it can be used to add a tasty dollop of foam to your morning coffee.”
But recent innovation hasn’t been limited to oat-based formulations. In 2020, Silk entered other new categories with its Silk DHA Omega-3 pea, oat and almondmilk; half & half alternative; heavy whipping cream alternative; and almondmilk Mix-Ins yogurt alternatives, Borrelli says.
And most recently, the brand introduced dairy-free ready-to-drink lattes said to “blend the smoothness of almondmilk with creamy oatmilk.” The lattes, available in Expresso Almond & Oat and Mocha Almond & Oat varieties, come in a premium 48-ounce recyclable plant-based bottle with at least 80% of its material made from renewable sugarcane.
The sustainability focus doesn’t end with the packaging. According to Silk, the coffee is grown by UTZ-certified farmers. UTZ is a label and program for sustainable farming. And like all other Silk products, the lattes are Non-GMO Project Verified.
Winning through variety, taste
The Silk brand now encompasses more than 40 SKUs of U.S.-manufactured products, Borrelli notes (see the sidebar, page 44). Silk products can be found in supermarkets, club stores and c-stores across the nation; via e-commerce and foodservice channels; and almost 20 countries, including the United States. Moreover, Silk holds the leader position in many U.S. plant-based products segments, including in the niche in which it got its start: refrigerated soymilk.
“The strength of Silk is that we create plant-based products across a variety of formats — beverage, yogurt alternatives and creamers,” Borrelli says. “We make it easy for people to adopt a plant-based lifestyle across dayparts, in many different categories.”
He adds that the brand’s almondmilk, oatmilk and protein nutmilk lines continue to grow “very well in the marketplace,” but its soy-, cashew- and coconut-based products also have good momentum.
Variety is important, of course, but taste is critical to winning repeat purchases. So Silk won’t compromise on taste when it comes to new product development.
The new product development process begins with inspiration, Borrelli explains. And that inspiration can originate from myriad sources ranging from “trend checks” at local coffeehouses and restaurants, to in-home interviews and consumer focus groups, to trade shows and other industry events — and more.
“Once the team comes up with an idea they love, they take it to the test kitchen to start experimenting with a balance of art and science, trial and error,” he says. “There are checks and balances throughout the process, but no two rounds of development are exactly the same.”
Although all of Silk’s recipes are “grounded in trusted science,” art often works its way in via the development of a best-in-class flavor or texture experience, Borrelli points out.
“Our product developers and quality assurance team work hard to test and trial each product so we can ensure to produce fantastic-tasting plant-based offerings,” he says. “We also take new products to consumers via research to get feedback before we go to market with the innovation.”
A health and sustainability champion
In addition to variety and taste, Silk is committed to making good on its promise to make the world a healthier place, Borrelli says.
“We believe that plant-based foods are the best way to nourish people and the planet,” he stresses.
On the consumer health side, for example, diets high in plant-based foods have been linked to the achievement and maintenance of a healthy weight. And on the sustainability side, growing plants typically requires fewer resource than raising animals.
“When you choose Silk products, you also choose to commit to sustainability through water conservation, recycling and supporting pollinators — bees,” Borrelli says. “Silk’s entire plant portfolio is verified by the Non-GMO Project, and since 2014, the brand has committed to support water conservation and restoration efforts.”
Such brand efforts mesh with well with those of Danone North America, which became the world’s largest Certified B Corporation (B Corp) in 2018. According to Danone North America, “B Corp certification is for businesses what organic is to food products: a promise that a company is doing business in a way that meets rigorous standards of verified performance, transparency and accountability.” B Lab, a third-party nonprofit, is the certifying body.
And despite the fact that Danone North America makes and markets a plethora of dairy products (primarily within the cultured dairy space), there’s no conflict between the dairy and nondairy focuses, Borrelli suggests.
“We are proud to be part of Danone North America, the world’s largest Certified B Corporation,” he says. “Danone North America has global expertise in both plant-based and dairy products, and we have always believed that people deserve the right to have options and make their own informed decisions about the products they purchase, whether they be dairy or plant-based. In many cases, people enjoy both in their diets.”
Want more Silk? Learn about Silk's allergen control and sustainability practices.
Connecting with consumers
Silk relies on a variety of ways to communicate its story of great taste, variety and heathy people/healthy planet to its target consumer demographic, which Borrelli says consists of “a diverse mix of wellness-seekers, dairy-free eaters and planet-conscious consumers.” That demographic also includes flexitarians, a group that continues to grow.
Since 2018, the brand has supported all of its products with Silk’s overarching “Progress is Perfection” campaign, Borrelli notes. The campaign encourages consumers to celebrate each small step toward health and nutrition goals.
“This message comes to life through advertising, earned media, influencers, social media and more,” he says.
In addition, the brand leverages various forms of advertising. For 2020, advertising dollars are shifting toward online and digital programming, Borrelli notes, in an effort to target consumers “where they are spending more of their time.”
On social media, the brand likes to play the role of cheerleader, he adds.
“We’re energized by creating inspiring yet accessible content, all in celebration of the little steps toward progress people can make by incorporating Silk into their diets,” Borrelli stresses. “Our social channels feature new products, fun recipes and ‘Progress-Makers’ who have declared their love for Silk.”
On a mission going forward
Looking ahead to next five years or so, Silk’s mission is “to democratize plant-based eating with delicious-tasting products,” Borelli says. As the brand continues to create innovative, great-tasting plant-based products, it hopes more people — both vegans and flexitarians — will add such products to their diets.
Situated as the trusted category in the quickly growing plant-based products space, Silk should have a leg up on competitors in the quest to gain fans and growth.
“Our pioneering drive has given us the chance to understand and know our consumer[s] and what they want,” Borrelli explains. “With that information, we have been able to develop the best possible products, considering taste, texture, convenience and nutrition.
“Since day one of Silk, we have been on the forefront of new innovations, and we continue to push ourselves and our consumers to make choices that are better for their bodies and their planet,” he adds.