Chobani's Mea Culpa To Scientists: 'We're A Human Company; We Made A Mistake'

Jun 6 2014, 5:48pm CDT | by

You’ve probably already heard of this week’s backlash against the New York State-based Greek yogurt-maker, Chobani, and an aspect of their #howmatters advertising campaign.

The specific offense that brought the heat was found in a statement under the aluminum lid for Chobani Simply 100, their new 100-calorie product line: “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #howmatters.”

The outrage began with a tweet and photo of the message from Dr. Piper Klemm early Tuesday morning. She admits that she didn’t purchase the product herself but “was staying at my in-laws house and raided their fridge.”

As a scientist myself, albeit one who is now a freelance science writer, I was curious as to the wisdom behind this approach to marketing.

“We simply made a mistake. The intent of the line was less an indictment of science but more of a celebration of nature,” said Peter McGuinness, Chief of Marketing and Brand Officer at Chobani.

But in creating a product with only 100 calories in 150 grams (5.3 ounces), the company relied extensively on their own food scientists in using plant extracts from nature to sweeten a product without excessive sucrose or resorting to an artificial sweetener, such as aspartame, whose taste some find offensive and to which others are intolerant.

McGuinness certainly acknowledged that point in our discussion. The combination of extracts from monk fruit, Stevia rebaudiana, and evaporated cane juice was optimized by Chobani R&D scientists over two years to create pleasing but lower-calorie sweetening.

Chobani founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, first brought mass produced Greek-style yogurt to the U.S. in 2007 with his purchase of a defunct Kraft manufacturing plant in upstate New York. Now worth $1.5 billion personally, Ulukaya and his company have captured over a 50 percent market share. But they were last to the market with a “light” Greek yogurt product.

“Our innovation mantra is that if we can’t do it better, we won’t do it,” said McGuinness.

A small part of a larger campaign

In owning up to the statement that provoked the ire of scientists on social media, McGuiness admitted that they were being “a bit too cheeky” with that line.

McGuiness said that the overall #howmatters advertising campaign stresses Chobani’s craft and commitment to a high-quality Greek yogurt product. The underlid message was one of 12 that rotated on the inside of the product, such as:

“It’s 100 calories and you just burned 2 reading this.”

“Not only is it 100 calories, but it’s open and you’ve got a spoon…”

“Try to mentally prepare your taste buds for 100 calories of awesomeness.”

“Finally, calories you can count on, not just count. #howmatters”

“It’s how we got to 100 calories that matters. #howmatters”/>/>

“Finally, a 100 calorie yogurt worth counting. #howmatters”

“Welcome to preservative-free yogurt made with only natural ingredients.”

“Hard to believe, but there are three cups of milk packed into each cup of Chobani Greek Yogurt.”

In this context, said McGuiness, the messages, launched in January and completed last week, were not a targeted effort to impugn scientists and science.

But scientists certainly didn’t take it that way.

Dr. Karen James, a biologist and citizen science specialist at Maine’s MDI Research Laboratory, tweeted a sentiment that seemed to have struck a chord in being retweeted over 100 times:

“I figured out why that @Chobani lid bugs me: it portrays scientists as anti-nature, but my love for nature is WHY I DO SCIENCE.”

What also seemed to offend scientists the most was the seemingly misguided pandering to the nation’s anti-science mentality and the misconception that anything from nature is good. (Ask Socrates what he thought of hemlock.)

Dr. Derek Lowe wrote at his medicinal chemistry blog, In the Pipeline, “But at another level, there’s a really cynical outlook here, one that is somewhat at odds with the company’s gosh-we’re-so-natural image. Someone higher-up OKed this slogan, in full knowledge that the company’s yogurt is produced – has to be produced – on an industrial scale, in a factory with lots of stainless steel equipment. But what the hell – sounds good, and people will buy it.”

While criticizing Chobani’s message, Dr. John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, elegantly laid down the science behind each ingredient listed on a cup of Chobani’s Simply 100 product.

By midday yesterday, the company issued an apology on Twitter:

We were too clever for our own good – didn’t intend to put down science or scientists with our recent lid. We discontinued it. #WordsMatter

McGuinness said, “We didn’t want scientists to be mad at us. Listen, we employ many food scientists. In fact, we just gave Cornell over a million dollars to do research on food safety.”

Last October, Chobani officials announced a $1.5 million gift to the Department of Food Science at Cornell University for research and training in food science and dairy innovation. In addition to supporting graduate training, internships will be made available to students at Chobani’s facilities in nearby New Berlin, New York, and at a relatively new facility in Twin Falls, Idaho. These positions will be spread throughout R&D and quality assurance units.

About three-quarters of the responses in that message thread were at least mildly-appreciative to fully-accepting of the company’s apology. Earlier this afternoon, even Professor Coupland tweeted:

“#FF @Chobani – for apologizing and changing course, and for having some great food scientists!”

Of course, some are still critical of other aspects of the marketing campaign, such as this video of test tubes on a tree and white-coated scientists carrying plastic cows around./>/>

Others have criticized scientists for being arrogant and taking themselves too seriously.

But was this intended to get intentional backlash while still appealing to natural foods customers?

“No, it wasn’t intentional, said McGuiness. “We’re a pretty inclusive brand. Some companies might think any publicity is good publicity. But that’s not us. We’re a human company. We’re not perfect.”

When asked if he’d do anything differently in retrospect, McGuiness said, ”In the spirit of being human, we acted quickly – more quickly than a big bureaucratic organization. Sure, it could have been more quickly.”

He added, “But there wasn’t a single point of contact. It wasn’t as though [a large scientific organization] criticized us. I wish I could have called somebody and explain the situation and the context and intent.”

The company is now offering an olive branch to those offended by the underlid message. “We’re inviting all scientists to enjoy a Chobani on us:  www.chobani.com/care.” The link takes you to their Customer Loyalty contact page. Simply fill out the form with your name and address and indicate in the message box that you are a scientist who was miffed by their message. You’ll receive a coupon in the mail.
 
 
 

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