For many of us, 2015 was a pretty dramatic year. In fact, I’d call it a turnaround year for the milk industry.

We’ve been through some challenging times, but the positive trends and bright spots are starting to outweigh the negatives. Flavored milk sales are strong with nearly 8% volume growth year-to-date; there is renewed interest and increasing sales of whole milk; innovation is reinvigorating the category; and the milk alternatives are starting to face media and consumer scrutiny.

4 important priorities the fluid milk industry must address

It’s this momentum that I’m confident we can continue (and even expand) into 2016. As an industry, and as an industry board, I see four important priorities we must address in 2016:

1. Protein, Protein, Protein. Milk is uniquely positioned for the protein opportunity. We have a product that naturally has a benefit Americans are seeking. Consumer research continues to reinforce the value of milk’s protein message. In particular, when we communicate that milk’s protein provides energy and focus to start the day right, we can impact consumer belief and behavior.

MilkPEP continues to prioritize the benefits of milk’s protein in advertising and as an industry. Many Americans are still unaware of milk’s protein. MilkPEP’s goal in 2016 is to increase that awareness to drive demand, and to show why milk is the protein of choice.

Watch live from Dairy Forum 2016

MilkPEP CEO Julia Kadison explains how fluid milk processors and Team USA connect millions of consumers with milk.

2. Outsmart the competition. It’s a competitive environment like never before in the dairy aisle. New products continue to tout milk-like benefits, and milk alternatives are taking real milk’s place at retail.

For the first time, MilkPEP took the competition head on in 2015 with competitive advertising and public relations programs that exposed the “ingredients” in milk alternatives. And the good news is we’ve started to see some push back against this – media coverage questioning the benefits of alternatives and the slowest growth rates we’ve seen in the category in quite a while. The growth of the market leader, almond milk, is slowing, too.
We have to keep our eye on the competition – whether it’s the milk alternatives or the anti-dairy naysayers, and continue to showcase the real advantages of real milk. Consumer confidence in milk is at the core of what MilkPEP has focused on. That will continue in 2016 as we push out more and more positive stories to clear up misperceptions about milk and give Americans more reasons to choose it.

3. Address declines in milk consumption by children, especially at school. Milk is one of the most nutrient-rich beverages kids can choose – and research continues to show that when kids miss out on milk, it’s hard to make up for the nutrition it provides. Yet, school milk has been on the decline for several years – we think in part due to the changes in school cafeterias limiting kids’ access to the milk choices they prefer.
With MilkPEP, my goal is to better understand what’s impacting kids’ milk consumption, and seek out solutions to address these barriers. This is a major concern for the milk industry and for the public health of our children, and definitely the most challenging long-term hurdle the industry faces.

4. Align as a full industry for greater success – from milk companies to farmers. Consumers are increasingly interested in the full food chain. They want to understand where their food comes from – from farm to shelf. Working together with Dairy Management Inc., we’ve forged strategic partnerships, elevated milk’s role within the industry and aligned with a network of like-minded communicators across the industry in Common Voice. We’ve helped dispel myths and misinformation and delivered millions of servings of milk to the nation’s hungry families via The Great American Milk Drive.

None of our competition has the impact on America that the dairy industry does – and we’ll continue to work together in 2016 to maximize our benefits.

Reasons to be optimistic about milk in 2016

I’m encouraged by the positives we’ve seen in the marketplace in 2015. As a long-time member of the MilkPEP board, I’m very pleased with the impact we’ve been able to achieve with MilkPEP programs – helping to drive category volume, shift the balance of conversation with positive milk stories and improve consumer confidence.

But this is just the beginning. I’m ready for an even stronger 2016 to come. As I take on the role of MilkPEP’s board chair, I’m optimistic for what’s ahead. My challenge to the board and to the industry is to think even bigger, to act differently and to not be afraid to take a new approach. Expect to hear even more from MilkPEP on new approaches and opportunities for the industry at the upcoming Dairy Forum.

We need to be smart, prepared and even aggressive to take advantage of the opportunities ahead of us. And, I think we’re ready. As former UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said, “I'm an optimist, but I'm an optimist who takes his raincoat.”