Milk does a body good, but ads do the industry even better

Most marketers think selling a brand is a challenge. But there’s an even tougher job: selling a generic commodity. Think about it. You see commercials for Chevrolet and Chrysler but not for the automobile. You see spots for McDonald’s and Pepsi, not fast food and soft drinks.

Yet there’s one popular drink sold mostly as a commodity: milk. Two groups, over seven years, have achieved a marketing feat in making this commodity a brand. In the process, they blunted a two-decade slide in milk consumption and raised sales for producers and processors.

”When it comes to cereal or a soft drink, I could advertise that brand when a competitive product was not advertising, and sales would go up,” says Kurt Graetzer, CEO of the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board. ”Our job is very different: We’re trying to move an entire industry. Our measuring stick involves many more bars to cross.”

Working with ad agency Bozell, Graetzer’s board created the famous ”milk mustache” print ads using a variety of celebrities. The idea is to make milk the ”cool” drink. The ”mustache” still runs, with modern celebrities just like Britney Spears.

The California Milk Processor Board used a different strategy to drive sales. The point of the high-impact ”got milk?” TV campaign: When people are deprived of milk, eating cookies or cereal can be hellish. The success of the state group’s TV ads, from Goodby Silverstein & Partners, led the national board to use them in the past.

An example: An obnoxious yuppie is killed in an accident and thinks he’s gone to heaven — he’s in a room with chocolate chip cookies and a fridge full of milk. But when he realizes the milk cartons are empty, he knows he’s in hell.

The ”got milk?” tagline has become a powerful brand in itself, playing on milk’s role as one of life’s necessities. ”You’ve got to manage it like a brand,” says Jeff Manning, executive director of the California board.

Other commodities have tried, such as beef, promoted as ”it’s what’s for dinner,” and pork as ”the other white meat.” But with chicken, Tyson and Perdue created national brands and made a folk hero of Frank Perdue. And health ads for generic orange juice gave way to more successful ads for brands such as Minute Maid and Tropicana.

But milk has only regional brands. While pasteurized orange juice lasts more than a month, most milk has a shelf life of 14 to 19 days. Cost and risk of spoilage complicate national distribution. While the world of milk processors has been consolidating, there’s still no company with a footprint big enough to justify national ads. So the national and California boards continue to promote the cause.

In 1999, the national group, which had relied on the emotional appeal of California’s TV ads, decided to create its own TV campaign around milk’s nutritional value. Bozell created three spots: In one, a man dressed in a milk carton heckles kids on a basketball court for not drinking milk and, thus, not playing well. In another ad, three old men drink milk and beat up some young toughs. The third, aimed at kids, shows a bigger, stronger Super Mario after he quaffs some milk.

”People knew that milk was good in general, but they didn’t know that it was important to them,” says Sal Taibi, who manages the milk account at Bozell. ”If we made it relevant, it would be very motivating. Milk suffers compared to competitive beverages because it hasn’t been marketed as aggressively, it’s not as convenient and the packaging isn’t very cool. It’s very easy for people to not drink milk.”

Graetzer knows the California TV ads are popular but says his research shows people are responding to his message. And, he says, ”They are contemporary, humorous and entertaining. They’re a wonderful sugar coating on a nutritional pill.”

Manning is proud his campaign has been so memorable, enough for the national board to license his ”got milk?” slogan for its mustache ads and new TV spots. But he acknowledges the importance of what Graetzer’s group is doing.

”They’re on a nutrition education strategy, and we do our deprivation stuff,” he says. ”I support them in their quest to reinforce milk as a great source of calcium.”

Manning’s ongoing challenge is to keep his long-running TV campaign fresh. It has been running since 1994 and garnered many industry awards. Agency founder Jeff Goodby remains vigilant about avoiding formulas. ”We’ve had to watch out for this. A guy gets his mouth full, and you say, ‘I know where this is going.’ ”

Goodby’s latest ”got milk?” ad goes for the gut in a new way. A teen pours milk into a box of chocolate cereal, shakes it as he gyrates to tunes on his headphones, then pours out . . . chocolate milk.

Someday, a processor might be big enough to market a national brand, such as Dean Foods, which has swallowed a batch of smaller processors and introduced innovations such as single-serving Chugs. Dean’s director of marketing, Sylvia Oriatti, sees a bright future. ”Milk may be a sleeping giant, but it has great potential.”

It took a tough Frank Perdue to make a tender chicken, and a national brand. Maybe someday, milk will find its own Frank Perdue.