The dairy case accounts for the highest volumes in any supermarket. Milk, yogurt and cheese are staples of most everyone’s diet. But consumers typically go to the store to get a quart of milk or a pound of cheese, not necessarily to get a particular brand of milk or cheese. So, other than price, how does a dairy producer distinguish its particular brands to stand out among all the other commodities on the shelf?
“What’s key to growth in a fairly mature category is innovation that provides added value,” says Nash Lakha, president and chief executive officer of Parmalat Canada Inc., one of the country’s largest food companies, serving retail groceries and foodservice industry customers, with $2.3 billion in annual revenue, a workforce of over 3,000 people and 18 dairy processing facilities located throughout Canada. “In recent years, the growth in new dairy products has been truly phenomenal, the sheer number of new SKUs regularly launched demand effective category management. We have to offer consumers value not only in terms of price, but also in terms of convenience, health benefits and even, when addressing the preferences of younger consumers, fun.”
Case in point: Parmalat’s Astro Zer0%™ Superfruit yogurt, Canada’s first fat-free yogurt, and one that offer unique flavors (e.g., acai raspberry, mango medley and cherry pomegranate). This innovation was recently recognized by BrandSpark International, which awarded Astro Zer0% with three of its 2010 “Best of ” awards: Best New Yogurt, Best in Food & Beverage and Best in Show.
Also winning recognition as Best New Beverage was another Parmalat brand, Astro BioBest Maximmunite™, an apricot mango probiotic drinkable yogurt that contains 25 percent less sugar than the leading probiotic drink and more than 10 billion Immunofit™ cultures per serving that promote healthy digestion. The product’s latest marketing campaign and television commercials highlight these health benefits by featuring the probiotics as characters employed in their tasks to the tune of “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work they go!”
A subsidiary of Parmalat S.p.A of Italy, the company has operated in Canada since 1997 when it acquired such well-recognized brands as Black Diamond™ Cheese, the first brand named cheddar, and Lactantia™, the first Canadian butter wrapped in aluminum to preserve “farm fresh goodness.” Boasting more than 125 years of leading brand heritage that also includes Beatrice™, Astro™, BioBest™, Cheestrings Ficello™, Funcheez™ and Balderson™, Parmalat Canada continues to produce outstanding high-quality and original milk and dairy products, yogurt and cultured products, cheese products and table spreads.
PROMOTING HEALTH AND CONVENIENCE
“Today’s consumers are much more aware of the health benefits of certain foods and how a balanced diet plays a crucial role in a fit lifestyle,” Lakha notes. “We strive to make our products both delicious and healthy.”
Last August, Parmalat launched Astro BioBest Plant Sterols yogurt, the first and only probiotic yogurt available in Canada that offers consumers a tasty option to manage their cholesterol levels. According to the government agency Health Canada, the daily amount of plant sterols shown to help reduce cholesterol in adults is two grams, equivalent to the daily consumption of 100 pounds of raw vegetables. However, BioBest Plant Sterols yogurt provides the same benefit with just two daily servings, making a cholesterol lowering plan that much easier to swallow.
“Whether it’s preventing the onset or finding ways to lower it, managing cholesterol is no easy feat,” says Lakha “Our goal is to be able to provide consumers with a simple, everyday food that’s easily incorporated into their diet with the added bonus of a functional ingredient that specifically lowers cholesterol, which is a significant factor in heart disease.”
Convenience extends not only to health benefits, but also towards the growing trend of “life on the go.” What fits the menu for “grab and go convenience” is snack cheese. The company’s individually wrapped cheese portions suit young and adult snackers. For younger consumers, parents look for both convenience and fun. In 1991, Parmalat originally launched Cheestrings, a brand that remains a market leader. In addition to providing “stringable” fun, the product provides children the natural benefits of a cheese snack, which includes a healthy source of calcium which is a fundamental component for bone growth. Cheestrings is made with milk naturally high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid integral to healthy development of the nervous system. As such, it is important to child nutrition.
“We introduced ‘Funcheez” – a 2009 Canadian Grand Prix New Product Finalist – to give another cheese snack to kids for imaginative play,” Lakha points out. The new launch of Funcheez Marbelicious won “Product of Year” and “Best New Products” awards in 2011.
For the adult snacker, Parmalat introduced its Black Diamond snack cheese packs. These come in marble, cheddar and gouda varieties and Balderson Royal Canadian snack portions of premium two-year cheddar. “Both products offer consumers convenient, nutritious, portion controlled – for those adults keeping an eye on their weight – individually wrapped items that are ideal at home or on the go,” Lakha says.
He adds, “Everyone’s trying to eat healthier these days and cheese is just a great way to do it. It gives consumers a healthier snacking option to the not so nutritious food choices out there today, and helps establish long-term good eating habits.”
PROVIDING CHOICE AND VARIETY
Of course, years ago, healthy food meant limited selections, and not particularly exciting ones. “It’s important to provide choice in terms of functional benefits, flavors and product varieties,” Lakha says. “Look at the popularity of yogurt, which used to be considered just a ‘health food’ with all the negative connotations that phrase used to have. Today, we offer multiple variations – plain, flavored, organic, drinkable, probiotic enriched – all available in different packaging forms. Yogurt has become so popular that its drinkable format now has become a significant portion of that food category.”
One way the company stands out in the dairy case is by constant reinvention – that is introducing new and exciting variations. That leads to more defined customer recognition: That means a customer-producer association. And that begins with identification: Consumers recognize Parmalat not just as dairy or yogurt producer, but as a leading purveyor of a brand that translates into food product innovation. From its end, Parmalat understands that you can’t just prop a product upon a store shelf and let the consumer figure it out. You’ve got to support it with effective merchandising that clearly explains the category and the benefits it offers consumers.”
One example is the introduction last year of Astro Original Greek Style yogurt, available in plain, honey and strawberry flavors. “Greek-style yogurt is thick and creamy and has double the protein of ‘regular’ yogurt,” Lakha says. “It’s one of the fastest growing categories in Canada, with most retailers importing product from the United States. Astro Original Greek Style yogurt leverages the Astro Original brand, which is a leading brand in Canada know for its all-natural, high-quality ingredients. Astro Original is the leader in set style plain yogurts, with Astro’s Balkan Style Natural Yogurt being Canada’s number-one selling family tub yogurt.”
Parmalat is also not content to coast on its extensive brand reputation, recognizing that continuous brand refreshment is as important as product innovation. Last year, all Parmalat premium milks and creams rebranded under the Lactantia name. “Our research shows Lactantia has the strongest brand equity in the category,” says Lakha. “In Quebec, Lactantia is the number-one player with more than half of the market. In addition, nationally, Parmalat is the leader in premium milk and cream. Similarly, regular milk is now sold nationally under the Beatrice brand name.”
He adds, “By combining the strengths of individual products under one national brand, it allows us to leverage and promote consistent packaging and consumer awareness across all the provinces. We tie that in with a national media and internet campaign to improve our shelf presence supported by traditional in-store merchandising such banners, flyers, coupons and samplings.”
Lakha emphasizes, “This is what we mean when we talk about category management. It’s not just putting product on the shelf. It’s making sure the products stand out on the shelf in ways that make consumers pay attention to a product that meets their dietary and taste preferences.”
That’s a recipe Parmalat continues to milk quite successfully.