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Monday, February 27, 2012

Squeezing the coconuts

The “big three” dairy alternative beverages—soy milk, rice milk and almond milk—have become increasingly mainstream, such that “dairy alternatives” may eventually give way to a term such as plant milks, or even to a dairy-free descriptor that sheds reference to the king of the dairycase altogether.   Nonetheless, shelf-space competition and consumer substitutions will tend to keep these products in opposition, with battles won and lost based on relative advantages and disadvantages in price, flavor, food sourcing and processing, product nutrition and fortification, and food intolerances. 
But there’s also the role of novelty.  Generally speaking, consumers of plant milks are a more adventurous bunch than those who drink cow’s milk. Experian Simmons data show, for example, that 50% of whole milk fans like to try out new food products, compared with 60% of soy milk fans.  Similarly, 21% of whole milk fans describe themselves as quick to try out new nutritional products, compared with 34% of soy milk fans.  (Organic dairy milk consumers are an exception to this general pattern, falling in with the plant milks crowd.)
The need for the new among plant milk consumers has, in turn, helped almond milk steal thunder from soy milk.  According to a Packaged Facts survey conducted for our Dairy Alternative Beverages (January 2012) report, 40% of soy milk drinkers are drinking more of this product than they were five years ago, a stat worrisome to dairy milk producers.  At the same time, 62% of almond milk drinkers are downing more of this product than they were five years ago, a stat worrisome to soy milk producers.
But not to diversified producers such as Dean Foods, which is not only the leading U.S. processor and distributor of milk and related dairy products, but the owner of WhiteWave, Silk, and Horizon Organic, among other national dairy and dairy alternative brands.  Sales figures for WhiteWave refrigerated dairy alternatives, as tracked by SymphonyIRI, tell the story of ongoing churn in the plant milks market—and of successfully navigating these currents.  Soy milk still accounts for three-fourths of WhiteWave sales in this segment, but while sales are flat or down for the Silk soy milk product lines, they are booming for Silk Pure Almond (up 66% for the 52 weeks ending January 22, 2012), and surging for the debut year of Silk Pure Coconut, launched in March 2011. 
Simply being new or unexpected doesn’t equate to success in the plant milks market, of course, as is obvious from the modest sales of hazelnut milk or oat milk, which have been on the market for a number of years. A successful launch in the plant milks arena should have a unique and cleverly executed marketing message that emphasizes taste and a compelling nutritional story, while perhaps also rafting the white waters of novelty.  Here is where non-diversified dairy milk producers are at a disadvantage.  It’s not that milk producers can’t play the novelty card:  as observed in Freshness: Culinary Trend Mapping Report (February 2012), a joint publication of Packaged Facts and the San Francisco-based CCD Innovation, “regular milk remains a supremely fresh and popular product, now with all kinds of styles and forms bursting from the dairy case—organic milk, all levels of fat, new chuggable flavored milks, raw milk, goat milk, you name it.”   All of those new styles and forms, however, run the risk of eroding the primacy (in this country) and seeming inevitability of dairy milk—of downgrading dairy milk from king of the dairycase to merely first among equals.  The more that marketers create distinctive versions of dairy milk, the less original it becomes, even when those variations are beneficial; milk starts to shed the very naturalness and authenticity that is evoked (however fancifully) by product names such as soy milk or almond milk.  While plant milks can play the field, dairy milk can’t do new product cartwheels without giving up some high ground.

The venerable “Got Milk?” campaign from the California Milk Processor Board holds this high ground with a “real milk comes from real cows” slogan and a website that opens with retro milk bottle graphics and a “many imitations—still no equal” tossing down of the gauntlet.   WhiteWave, however, has no qualms about taking on what "Got Milk?" calls the real thing.   WhiteWave boasts that “Silk Pure Coconut  provides 50% more calcium than dairy milk—yet is completely lactose free,” and provides a nutritional table that shows 2% milk comparing unfavorably with Silk Pure Coconut in calories, calcium, cholesterol, and sugars.  With a stealing-a-page promise of “fresh, creamy taste,” Silk Pure Coconut recommends itself straight up, in your morning coffee, and for savory or dessert recipes, while Silk’s Facebook page shows plant milks being poured over breakfast cereal and paired up with chocolate chip cookies.   At least for its leading U.S. processor and distributor, milk is no sacred cow.

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