Look at the website of Activia, a brand of Broomfield, Colo.- and White Plains, N.Y.-based Danone North America, and you might assume you’ve searched for wellness advice. The page features a tab for health professionals, as well as ones saying “What is gut health?” and “What are probiotics?”

Unlike other yogurt brands that might focus on their quirky flavor offerings or kid-friendly formats, Activia is all about the gut. The brand’s product lines boast probiotics and gut-health benefits with the idea that food can do something for you beyond merely provide calories.


Building a brand

According to Pedro Silveira, president of yogurt for Danone North America, Activia was formed as part of the company’s overall strategy of being responsive to consumer needs and creating brands that respond to them.

“So we have this kind of very, very strong point of view that [a] one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work,” he says. “And we have to have brands that will be there to attend [to] all different kinds of needs that the consumers have. We offer them a variety of different experiences.”

In terms of the Activia brand, that consumer need was probiotics. Activia had already been a successful concept overseas, but it wasn’t until 2006 that it was brought to the United States, explains Kallie Goodwin, vice president, family and wellness brands. Danone North America had seen rising consumer interest in health and wellness products and thought it was a good opportunity to launch the brand stateside.

“So Activia is the No. 1 yogurt brand known globally and something we've had in other markets before it came to the U.S.,” she adds. “…Danone — seeing an opportunity to activate probiotics in the U.S. — decided to bring Activia to this market. And it's been just a smashing success since then.”

The brand basically began the U.S. conversation around probiotics and how they contribute to gut health, Silveira notes.

“Activia is essentially the original probiotic brand in the U.S.,” Goodwin adds. “Before we launched in 2006, most consumers had no idea what probiotics even were. Now 80% of U.S. consumers are aware of probiotics.”

Activia uses 20 years of science and results from 18 clinical studies to back up its gut-health claims, says Kristie Leigh, senior manager of scientific affairs for Activia. It also is the No. 1 doctor-recommended probiotic, she says, pointing to results from a nationwide survey of 400 doctors (primary care physicians, gastroenterologists and OB-GYNs).

“Working with health and nutrition stakeholders has been part of the Activia brand since the beginning,” Leigh notes. “We value these relationships because we know health care professionals and registered dietitians are the ones recommending our products.”


Meeting many needs

Danone North America offers approximately 50 SKUs under the Activia brand. They range from yogurt cups to drinks to smoothies and are packaged in a variety of formats. Part of Danone North America’s strategy is to develop SKUs for different customers and channels, Silveira notes. (See product development spotlight sidebar.)

“This whole notion of not only having brands that are very sharp to what [consumers need], but also formats that are more kind of customized to specific channels is a big, big part of our strategy as well,” he continues.

For example, Activia is a huge player in the retail space, but its products also are offered in “away-from-home channels,” Goodwin explains, which include hotel chains and hospitals. These channels might require different formats. And in the convenience store space, the brand’s 7-ounce smoothies are a good fit.

Danone North America even developed a new format — a multi-serve Activia tub — for grocery stores this year based on consumer insights. The product was born out of the ongoing popularity of multi-serve items as people reduce trips to the supermarket during the COVID-19 pandemic and will launch later this year.

“This year for Activia, [it] is really about giving consumers a new pack format particularly because we've seen people eating at home, much more…” says Silveira. “That's why we came [out] with the large-size tubs.”

One of the brand’s most successful recent launches are the Activia probiotic dailies, explains Goodwin. The offerings are 3.1-ounce yogurt drinks marketed as “a quick, easy and tasty way to enjoy your daily probiotics.”

Silveira notes that one of the benefits consumers see with Activia probiotic dailies is that they are a convenient way to get probiotics without interfering with any breakfast plans.

“You can have your eggs, you can have your pancake, and that shot is not gonna interfere in your breakfast at all,” he says. “But you're gonna feel good that you had your probiotic in the morning.”

The new line was developed based on research suggesting that millennials — millennial moms in particular — wanted the benefits of probiotics in a more convenient format.

“It just has been an amazing success since it was launched,” Goodwin points out. “It's basically doubled in size in the last two years. And in the latest 52 weeks, it's actually up 30%.”


Seeking gut health

Activia views its typical customer as the “gut health seeker,” explains Goodwin. He or she is a person who is informed about the role that gut health plays in overall health and wellness.

“All of our retail partners see this person as well in their store. I mean, it's not just a trend. It's really like a lifestyle, I would say, that's here to stay across the entire store,” she says. “In yogurt, we're obviously the No. 1 probiotic, but you see functional foods show up in a variety of different categories.”

According to Goodwin, even more consumers seem to be interested in health-and-wellness products since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know 29% of consumers have reported that they're trying more functional foods and beverages because of COVID,” she explains. “And so that really sets Activia up uniquely for even more growth in the future.”

In addition to having probiotic and other healthful qualities, Silveira explains that Activia’s product offerings are delicious.

“Very creamy, very tasteful, and you feel good about having it,” he says. “I think this is why I absolutely love this brand.”

To bring potential new consumers in, Activia is focusing on communicating how gut health affects overall wellbeing. For example, it launched an A to Z marketing campaign last year, says Goodwin. The campaign is “anchored in this insight that what happens on the inside, what happens in your gut really affects your mind and body from A to Z.”

The campaign was conducted via television ads and online videos with a social media component. Since its launch, Activia has seen 31 weeks of consecutive growth, says Goodwin. In February 2021, Activia’s sales were up 3.6% from that time in 2020.

“So 2020 was really a transformative year for the brand due to a variety of factors. But one of them being this new campaign and positioning where we have now really connected with our target consumers,” says Goodwin. “So that has turned the brand into a growing brand and also helped us drive some of our key brand health metrics like consideration.”

Another successful marketing campaign for Activia has been its Gut Health Challenge, in which the brand encourages consumers to try its products twice a day for two weeks.

“As probiotic pioneers, we believe that wellbeing starts in the gut,” Activia says on the Gut Health Challenge’s website. “Adding delicious Activia into your daily routine twice a day is one of the easiest ways to do more good for your gut!”

According to Goodwin, the challenge is promoted in store, as well as through online activations with influencers.

“We're doing a program right now including an influencer, Iskra Lawrence, that we're really excited to partner with,” she points out.

Activia uses social media in general to promote its products and focuses on creating a vibrant and positive brand voice on those platforms.

“We want to be women's [allies] in helping them feel their best every day,” Goodwin remarks. “And that comes with a real sense of positivity that we're bringing to life through influencers we choose, through our tone of voice when we speak directly to consumers.”


Product development spotlight: A team effort

When new products are developed for Activia, Danone North America first looks to see if there is a consumer need, notes Roisin McGovern, vice president of yogurts, R+I. The company then figures out if it can solve that need in “a new and innovative way.”

Danone is a big proponent of using consumer insights to inform decision-making, explains Pedro Silveira, president of yogurt.

“We have a number of years of consumer insights … here in the U.S., and actually in regions in the U.S.,” he adds. “And this creates a huge opportunity for us to innovate our portfolio.”

After initial ideation, potential new products move to a research phase, and they are tested with consumers via focus groups and concept tests, says McGovern.

“We always make sure to take new products and concepts to consumers via research to get feedback before we go to market with the innovation,” she explains. “This is typically an iterative process to ensure that we are getting it right.”

If a concept makes it out of the research phase, Activia gets the marketing department involved, McGovern adds. And the sales team gets involved to ensure that the right messaging about the product gets out to retailers to generate excitement.

Any new product development is a “team effort from start to finish,” McGovern emphasizes. Many departments get involved, including the brand team, strategy and insights, research and development, quality, user experience, scientific affairs, legal, supply chain, packaging and plants.

“A great example of our product development process, and the success it has when executed correctly, is Activia dailies,” she explains. “We knew consumers wanted the probiotics they know and love from Activia yogurts, but in a quick and easy form they could grab on the go. Dailies have been a massive success since their launch in 2017, and recently saw a big surge in sales in the past year.”