How Chobani Squeezed New Flavor Into A Crowded Market

Chobani marketing director Niel Sandfort spills on how this eight-year-old company cut through the competition to get its product on top.

I woke up one day and Chobani was everywhere. It was on billboards, on TV, and in every woman’s cart at the grocery store. I didn’t understand. Wasn’t the yogurt industry saturated? How was this new product battling for shelf space (and winning) in my local Fred Meyer?

A fluke, I thought.

It was early 2011 and miraculously, Chobani didn’t disappear like most fad products. In fact, by summer my grocery store was allowing consumers to buy yogurt by the pallet, not just by the tub. Just to be clear, this meant that a 12-serving tub of yogurt was not enough for some women—they wanted 24 servings per week!

In five short years, the business grew from nothing to a roughly $1 billion company. I couldn't help but wonder, how exactly did Chobani get their brand-new product into an already overcrowded market—and make it fly off the shelves?

I went straight to the source for answers, inspiration, and advice: Niel Sandfort, Director of Marketing at Chobani. Here's what he revealed:

Chobani has grown rapidly in the past five years, despite the crowded yogurt market. How did the Chobani team get the product to market so successfully?

Neil Sandfort: Anytime we are talking about success, it all comes down to the product. Especially in the food category, your product has to be great. I could point to a million examples of things that are really healthy, but not very tasty.

Yogurt had this healthy halo around it for decades, but, ironically, this was our biggest challenge. Our competitors marketed yogurt as a substitute—"I really want a piece of cake, but instead, I guess I’ll settle for yogurt." We wanted to change the perception of the category by making the yogurt itself something to look forward to and not just a compromise.

Was there a tipping point for Chobani?

Yes, the tipping point was really the first quarter of 2011 when our first TV advertisement hit. Before that, we already had a large ground swell out there and steady sales despite spending zero on advertising. Everything we did was social. Our conclusion was that people liked the product and the price. The "Chobani-acs"—what we call Chobani fans—and early adopters were already hooked.
When the first ad hit a lot of people had already heard of us and it was on their list to try. That first campaign kick-started us and we took off like a rocket.

What are the main avenues Chobani's marketing team used to get such viral growth?

Before the rapid growth, we were committed to social engagement from the beginning. Five years ago, that was quite cutting edge. Before you even think about mass media or paid media, you have to have your ducks in a row on a number of fronts.

You have to be on social media, which is so obvious it’s not even a question anymore. You need a community where fans can share their expression of the brand so new fans can see passion for the product. Whichever platform you use, you must invest in it from a human resources perspective, not a dollar perspective. Don’t bother if you don’t have the resources to actively engage with the audience. You have to talk, engage fans, and answer questions. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality engagement.

You talked about what worked, but what didn’t work?

We haven’t spread ourselves too thin. We stuck with the social vehicles and literal vehicles for sampling until we could handle more. Then we had just two TV campaigns. So we haven’t had any epic fails. The biggest challenge was trying to stay true to the product when the growth was exponential. That was really hard. We had to carefully hire while growing to make sure we were still getting employees who were a good cultural fit. This is another aspect to our success, we hire people who fit our culture. We have over 2,000 people now working at Chobani and virtually nobody has left [the company] in five years, including people in the plant.

What can other companies and entrepreneurs learn from Chobani's branding and marketing strategy?

First, understand who you are and what you feel deeply about. Our founder felt strongly that Chobani is not a niche brand for people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He believes everyone deserves a great product for $1 a cup. You have to understand what your story is and what you are trying to do. Then as you grow and bring on new people, make sure they believe in the story and brand message. A narrative is more memorable than facts or claims.

Vanessa Van Edwards specializes in social and emotional intelligence research and development. The focus of her company is to combine human behavior research and tech trends.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

[Yogurt Image: MidoSemsem via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Cthrnferguson

    I just recently started trying chobani. they make yogurt exciting again! Their coconut - almond- chocolate mix was fantastic. ditto on the key lime. their "bites" including the fig orange are different and delicious. i am looking forward to their new ideas!

  • RealGreek

    Cute to say that tv ad was the tipping point, but the brand had tipped long before based on a good product at a much lower price than the competitor who had established Greek yogurt as something healthy and premium.  The tv ad was icing on the cake, not the cake.