In creating the top brand of Greek yogurt in the U.S., Chobani Inc. was called upon to walk a fine line between tradition and innovation.
Greek yogurt is a fairly simple product that offers a double dose of protein along with an all-natural appeal. The trick for Chobani was to take that fairly simple proposition and find a way to make yogurt cool.
"We give our yogurt a modern twist by creating new and exciting flavors," says John Heath, vice president of new ventures and innovations at the Norwich, N.Y.-based company.
"Philosophically speaking, we just try and keep our product simple and create varieties that make sense for yogurt – something that we might add ourselves at home to plain yogurt.
So, you won't find a cake flavor from Chobani. But you will find pure, simple flavors that are familiar to you but you may not have had in a traditional, Greek yogurt before."
Chobani is a nontraditional company, and so is its product development. Instead of an R&D department, Heath leads an innovations team that includes a small handful of innovations specialists, and also draws on resources from various others departments in the company.
Their work has been a key component of the remarkable success enjoyed by the Chobani brand, which was launched just five years ago. Chobani has become the largest single brand of yogurt in the U.S., with more than 1,700 employees, and is on track to sell $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt in 2012.
Keeping it real
With their white background and brightly colored lettering and fruit images, the packaging graphics reflect the wholesomeness of the milk and the excitement of the fruit flavors
What differentiates authentic Greek (also referred to as Mediterranean-style or, simply, strained) yogurt from the yogurt U.S. consumers are accustomed to is that it is strained, so that some of the liquid whey is removed. This produces a yogurt that is thicker -- without the use of starches and gums -- and higher in protein. Both of those attributes have caught the attention of Americans who are seeking more nutrients and fewer additives in their food products.
"It takes three pounds of milk to make one pound of Chobani, using an authentic straining processes," Heath notes. For other American yogurts, one pound of milk yields a pound of yogurt. "Essentially we are applying new technology to a traditional process. We use mechanical separation to replicate how people used to strain their yogurt hundreds of years ago in cloth bags."
A similar separation process is used on the pasteurized milk that is the basic ingredient of Chobani yogurt. All incoming milk is reduced to skim for processing. At the end, cream is added back in to create products in 2 percent milk fat, as well as a fat-free option.
That's the foundation of the product line. In addition to a Plain in each of the fat levels, there are a variety of flavors in nonfat and in lowfat. Some of these include Raspberry, Blood Orange and Honey in nonfat, along with Passion Fruit, Mango and Strawberry Banana in lowfat. Vanilla and Vanilla Chocolate Chunk are also in the mix. Blood Orange is joined by Lemon to make up the Citrus offerings.
Heath says the flavor offerings do not all have equal appeal to customers, with some big sellers and some that have more of a cult following.
"Like a lot of our Chobani flavors, citrus is polarizing – you either like it or you don't. And we love that actually. We've found that while an SKU like our Lemon is not a top-five flavor, those who buy our Lemon love our Lemon, and they're quite vocal when they can't find it."
Citrus flavors present technical challenges as well, he says.
"From an R&D perspective, citrus is difficult to do well in a yogurt, and we're proud of the combinations we've put to market. Some flavors, like Lemon, are best when blended throughout the yogurt, and others, like Blood Orange, do well in a fruit-on-the-bottom cup."
Flavor comes first, as it does with any kind of food, but nutrition is awfully important for yogurt, which has always been positioned as a healthful food. In addition to that big dose of protein (18g per serving in Plain, 36 percent of the RDA), all the yogurts provide vitamins, 15-20 percent of the RDA for calcium, and live and active cultures including three probiotic strains. All Chobani products start with milk from cows not treated with rBST, the synthetic growth hormone. They are kosher, made without gelatin and animal-friendly. They are also 95 percent lactose-free, and in them you won't find any artificial flavors or colors or preservatives.
Single-serve Chobani products are packed in 6-oz. cups. Multi-serve 16-oz. packages are offered for seven blended flavors and in both fat levels of plain, along with 32-oz. bulk containers in Plain, Vanilla and Strawberry.
With their white background and brightly colored lettering and fruit images, the packaging graphics reflect the wholesomeness of the milk and the excitement of the fruit flavors. A large "0" or "2" character in the background indicates the fat level. The cups and tubs are lower and chubbier than most yogurt packaging used in the U.S.