Q&A: Innovation insights from Chobani

by Monica Watrous
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Chobani is on a mission to get more consumers to eat Greek yogurt.

 

NORWICH, N.Y. — Innovation at Chobani is driven by D.N.N.A. — products must be “delicious, nutritious, natural and accessible.” Since founder Hamdi Ulukaya perfected the company’s first cup of Greek yogurt in 2007, the brand and category have burgeoned in the United States. But Greek yogurt consumption is still behind that of European markets, said Michael Gonda, vice-president of communications at Chobani.

“There are also large segments of the consumer population that aren’t consuming Greek yogurt,” Mr. Gonda said. “One area is toddlers and kids. Not a whole lot of great options in that space. As part of our mission to reach new consumers, we created in January a pouch designed just for tots.”

Chobani Tots Greek Yogurt pouches were part of a comprehensive product launch unveiled at the beginning of the year. The company also introduced Chobani Kids Greek Yogurt pouches and expanded several product lines, including Chobani Greek Yogurt Oats, which combines Greek yogurt with steel-cut oats, ancient grains and fruit; Chobani Flips, featuring Greek yogurt packaged with mix-ins such as nuts and dark chocolate; Chobani Simply 100 Greek Yogurt, which contains 100 calories per cup; and Chobani Indulgent, a line of Greek yogurt desserts.

Chobani is set to debut two new core Greek yogurt varieties: mixed berry and coffee.

“Hamdi has always been ultimately the final taster, the final approval for each of our new products,” Mr. Gonda said. “That still remains today.”

In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Gonda discussed how the brand leverages consumer insights to develop new products and push the boundaries of the Greek yogurt category.

“Obviously we have grown a lot since that first cup was made,” he said, “but we’re a small team of people who are completely obsessed with yogurt, we are completely obsessed with making better food for more people, and we’re really obsessed with finding new ways for people to enjoy yogurt and new consumers who will enjoy it.”

Coffee is one of the latest new flavors in the core Greek yogurt lineup.

Food Business News: Tell me about the product development process at Chobani.

Michael Gonda: (In addition to) reaching new regions and reaching new consumers, the third part, which is really important, is increasing day part consumption and usage occasions for yogurt.

When we’re comparing ourselves to more mature yogurt markets in Europe, we’re seeing yogurt consumed throughout the day — for breakfast, used in lunch, in the afternoon as snacks, cooked with dinner, used as desserts. It really is a great staple ingredient and a great alternative to lot of things Americans use as staples right now. So we’re doing a lot to really push day part consumption.

How is Chobani achieving that?

Mr. Gonda: In the past year, we came out with two different prepackaged platforms. One is Chobani Greek Yogurt Oats. We’ve included gluten-free, whole grain oats in our Chobani Greek yogurt. It has 10 grams of protein, 10 grams of whole grains and 3 grams of fiber. It came from the insight that people were already making overnight oats with Chobani, but they wanted something prepackaged.

How long does it take to develop a new platform like that?

Mr. Gonda: We are in the unique, very fortunate position to be able to come up with ideas pretty quickly. When those ideas are baked, when we know it’s delivering on our D.N.N.A., we can get it to the shelf faster than almost any consumer goods company. The Chobani Greek Yogurt Oats, from ideation to delivery, was less than six months.

That’s something that’s really exciting to us — the idea that we can dream and execute in a way that is wholly unique to our brand.

A focus of product development at the company is creating new consumption occasions for Greek yogurt.

 

We have our Chobani SoHo Cafe, which is a restaurant that we recently reopened and increased the footprint by double. It has a full menu, and we’re noticing the highest foot traffic for that location is between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m., the lunchtime occasion. Roughly 70% of that menu is savory items. We see that cafe as the most forward-leaning, forward-looking view of that brand.

So if you go into that cafe, you’ll see tons of savory items and new ways to inspire people to cook with it. A lot of the prepackaged innovations we come out with are inspired by what’s popular on that menu. So we have an executive chef who runs the cafe, runs the menu, and he works very closely also with the R.&D. team.

One example is Chobani Flips, which is what we think of as an anchor for the afternoon snack. That is what bridges you from lunch to dinner. These are delicious, fun creations that are incredibly popular. The repeat on that product is incredible. People try it, they love it, and they buy it again.

We’re often trying new versions of that Flip. It has a crunchy sidecar that you flip into our yogurt. We’re trying a lot of those things out in our cafe, we’re trying it out on each other, whether that’s in Twin Falls or here in our marketing center in SoHo or in upstate New York, where the home of the company is. We’re trying out these different variations and making things up all the time.

Are there other categories or usage occasions Chobani is targeting for future innovation?

Mr. Gonda: The way we often describe it is that the supermarket is wide open with opportunities to try and reinvigorate the category. Right now we’re really focused on growing consumption in the U.S. of yogurt. I think there are lots of different opportunities and options.

We have this idea if we can’t do it better, we’re not going to do it at all, so we spend time to make sure we’re creating a product that’s really exceptional.

A limited-batch platform allows the company to experiment with unique flavors, such as green tea and grape.

Have there been any product flops or flavors that simply did not resonate with consumers?

Mr. Gonda: We’re always looking at our portfolio to see what people are liking the most.

What we do on a seasonal basis is come up with limited-batch offerings. Last year we did watermelon and grapefruit. After that we did pumpkin spice and apple spice. And starting in January, we did green tea and Concord grape. These are really unexpected, exciting flavors. We design it in a way where we’ll probably only repeat the most popular flavor the next season around and introduce a new flavor along with it.

We want to keep introducing new, exciting flavors and to promote that sense of discovery on the shelf so someone says, “I never would have thought of a green tea Greek yogurt or a pumpkin spice Greek yogurt.”

Pumpkin spice was the fastest selling s.k.u. in our history. It did phenomenally well. Next year, we’ll probably introduce that again. I don’t know that we’ll do apple spice, not because it necessarily failed, but because we want to offer that opportunity to do a new limited-batch.

To us, Greek yogurt is an incredible blank canvas, and you can extend that into savory and new types of sweet products. We’re always looking to further that sense of discovery and excitement.

What inspired the latest new flavors, coffee and mixed berry?

Mr. Gonda: I think that there was always a desire to have a coffee product. What sets us apart is we don’t use artificial flavors, so that coffee that we have in there is real coffee.

Our fans wanted these flavors. We spent some time thinking about how to do it in a way that met that core mission. If we’re not going to do a better coffee or a better mixed berry, we’re not going to do it at all.

What’s next for Chobani?

Mr. Gonda: We have a really exciting pipeline, and we have products that will continue to deliver on the D.N.N.A. of our brand. When we look at new geographies, new consumers, and new day parts, there’s a lot that we have coming that allow us to push the boundaries of Greek yogurt.

What else has Chobani learned from its consumers?

Mr. Gonda: We have an incredibly active and loyal fan base. The company grew up on social media. When we look at the limited-batch options we’re coming out with, a lot of those were inspired by communications we’re having with fans.

We know, for instance, when we came out with our Chocolate Haze Craze Flips, we knew our fans love hazelnut and that it was an exciting opportunity to incorporate that theme into the Flips platform.

We’ll have more of that to come as well in future innovations.
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