This is a contributed post to my column by CircleUp's PR Lead, Kira McCroden.
I've long admired how Chobani brought a new, healthy kind of yogurt to the masses--telling a great story along the way. I recently sat down with Nicki Briggs, Chobani's former Chief Communications Officer, now founder of the marketing firm NEAR BOIL, to ask her how she built Chobani's brand. (Chobani and NEAR BOIL have no business relationship with CircleUp.)
Chobani's story starts in 2007, when founder Hamdi Ulukaya purchased an old factory in a small New York town. He went on to help revive a local economy, create an entirely new category in the competitive food industry, and reached $1 billion in annual revenue within just five years.
Scaling to a billion dollars in less than a decade requires, among many things, near-perfect execution in branding, marketing and PR. Nicki approached branding with a mind for scale from day one. She wanted a strategy they could leverage immediately, but also evolve with the business.
"PR's a bit of a snowball," she explained to me. "It's about taking the brand values and crafting a tight message. As you build momentum, the message snowballs, but the core message always stays the same."
Here Nicki explains how other young food and beverage companies can learn from how Chobani scales its brand's impact.
The Right Product and the Right People
Chobani solved a problem the consumer wasn't even aware of. Greek yogurt existed in niche health stores, but it didn't taste good enough for most people to care about it. When Chobani hit the market, people were excited about Greek yogurt for the first time. The company was well-positioned for growth. Product, check.
Then, Ulukaya's personal story got customers excited about the brand. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1994, and with no prior experience, built a billion-dollar brand. He's also been an advocate for increasing minimum wage, and made headlines when he gave 10% of the company to employees in 2015. That move turned a few early employees into overnight millionaires. People, check.
With the two most important pieces in place, there was a lot of great material to work with. Still, Nicki knew that a truly cohesive message must be embraced internally first. Companies that live their brand identity every day are the ones that can sustain positive sentiment for the long term. So she led an effort to define the company's values. She helped survey more than 1,000 employees, created internal brand ambassadors and put teams in place to ensure the company lived up to its high standards.
"It captured something that was really magical," she explained. "It was the tangible energy of our company."
Syncing the product with the people behind it created plenty of opportunities for press. Dozens of publications leapt at the opportunity to cover the positive workplace and consumer innovation stories that Chobani showcased from the inside out.
Make the Brand Smaller
Small brands often want to appear larger than they are. The phrase "make the brand bigger" is an all too familiar cliche amongst marketers of emerging businesses. But, more and more, large brands now want to appear smaller to preserve the element of craft and authenticity. It's a catch-22 that can lead to mixed messaging.
The Greek yogurt market barely existed when Ulukaya launched the company in 2007. But in 2013, Greek yogurt accounted for $2.6 billion in total sales. Fast growth pulls companies towards a corporate mentality, but people love a good underdog.
So how do you go about being a large company with small company values? According to Nicki, there are two key ways.
The larger a company gets, the more risk-averse they are. This is the classic innovator's dilemma--how do you serve the customer's current needs while still preparing for the future?
Nicki recommends building risk-taking into your branding strategy. Whether it's the latest social channels, experiential events or good old-fashioned ads, she says, "to differentiate your brand, you just have to take risks."
Be prepared for some of your plans to fail. Implicit in trying new strategies is the notion that some will not work. This is part of the process, Nicki says. "The saving grace is you are empowered to take risks when you start with strategy."
Never stop evolving
This goes back to the snowball analogy. Chobani earned its underdog status by creating a new category of yogurt, and to the benefit of the PR team, the leadership was committed to evolving the brand as it scaled. The underdog mentality was kept alive by challenging the status quo on wages and benefits and focusing on local sourcing. The messages are remarkably consistent in the press.
An obsession with tinkering is what keeps your branding fresh. The key to sustainable PR is near-constant change.
Learn from Your Competition
"Sometimes I'll hear from a founder that they don't have competitors," Nicki says. "They aren't trying to be boastful, they just believe deeply in the uniqueness of their product, so do not see other direct product parallels."
But competition is everywhere. Tasty Greek yogurt may have been a new product, but it still competed with other healthy snacks. It's better, in Nicki's estimation, to embrace it rather than ignore it. "It's critical to success. Being a company that says, 'Oh, we don't have any competitors,' is like having blinders on. You can't stay afloat if you can't keep up with the market and what consumers are responding to."
Imagine you and your competitors exist on a branding spectrum, ranging from dull to exciting. Your brand should be different, but not bizarre. If you want mass appeal, you'll need to fall within the comfort zone of most consumers while still piquing their interest.
"A little competition never hurts," she says. "It's always nice to have some healthy adrenaline to make sure that you're maximizing every opportunity."