Sincerity: The secret of Chobani’s social success

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How do you launch a brand that seems like a longshot? The same way you score on social: with sincerity, according to Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness. 

During his ClickZ Live New York keynote, celebrated marketer Seth Godin talked about the pitfalls of trying to be a mass brand. He said that if you want to reach everyone, you’d better have a product everyone wants to buy.

…kind of like yogurt.

Delivering the keynote on day two, Peter McGuinness, chief marketing officer (CMO) of Chobani, discussed the brand’s road to ubiquity. When Hamdi Ulukaya launched Chobani in 2005, he was strongly advised not to. Greek yogurt is too tart for Americans’ palates and they don’t even know what Greek yogurt is anyway, he was told.

Eleven years later, of course, everyone knows what Greek yogurt is and knows what Chobani is. According to McGuinness, the brand achieved that by refusing to compromise.

“In a world driven by profits – and potassium sorbate and purple 40 – we’re driven to do something different,” said McGuinness. “Modern and [consumer packaged goods  (CPG)] is totally incongruous. CPG, and spirit and soul is antithetical. If you can do that, you can be quite a special food company.”

Chobani grew fast and turned the yogurt industry on its head. So fast that without a supply chain or a head of regulatory affairs, the brand couldn’t keep up with its own growth. There was a mold recall that caused so much chaos that McGuinness joked that his CMO title stood for “Chief Mold Officer.”

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The B.C. in this slide stands for “Before Chobani.”

Using preservatives would solve the mold problem for good. But that would contradict the brand’s ethos of providing natural, nutritious food to the masses. So instead, Chobani simply took to social and apologized.

“It’s how you communicate every day. Social channels are what you say at events, it’s what you do from a PR perspective, it’s how you behave. You can do ads,” said McGuinness, whose pre-Chobani experience includes being chief executive (CEO) of DDB Chicago. “But ads aren’t going to get you in an authentic way.”

Brands always talk about being “authentic” and “humanized.” For McGuinness, the way to do that is by talking like an actual human.

When Chobani chose to support the LGBT community and give the finger to the anti-gay laws in Russia during the Sochi Olympics, the brand just did so. There was no long, carefully-crafted statement dripping with legalese and PR jargon; instead, it was just a simple tweet that thousands of people liked and retweeted.

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“If you have something to say, say it. Don’t mince words,” said McGuinness. “Don’t market in the middle; the middle is lame. Consumers don’t appreciate it. It’s not going to cut through, it’s not going to relevant and it’s not going to be resonant.”

CPG brands don’t inherently have a physical connection with their customers. Nobody buys cereal at the Cheerios store; they buy it at Walmart or Kroger or Key Food. McGuinness argues that social is a way to forge one.

“Our customer buys a cup of yogurt from someone other than us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a connection with them,” said McGuinness. “When we do good, people love us. When we screw up, they hate us. There’s no middle ground and we listen to them.”

Engaging with fans on Twitter or Instagram (arguably Chobani’s strongest channel) is a good way to keep them as fans. One-third of Chobani’s product offerings were suggestions from “Chobaniacs,” as the brand calls its loyal online following.

What it comes down to, whether on or offline, is sincerity. The brand has a sincere commitment to its values and sincere interactions on social, from apologizing for the mold incident to engaging Chobaniacs.

“In the world we live in, healthy, sustainable human relationships are about giving and getting, whether it’s a husband and wife, a daughter, or your friends,” said McGuinness. “Why should it be any different with brands?”

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