The Future of Authenticity: Yoghurt Innovation in America

3 August 2017 | By Sign Salad
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Lately, the yoghurt industry has been doing some serious soul-searching. Sales have slumped in a category that, worryingly, saw its last bout of seismic innovation nearly twelve years ago— when in the US, Chobani touted ‘healthy’ Greek yoghurt as an alternative to sugary ones. Ever since then, brands have banked on the promise of authentic healthiness to attract consumers, churning out ever more virtuous offerings from fat-free to pea-based cultures. But as cultural ideas around body positivity and wellness have evolved — moving away from calorie-counting towards a more relaxed, forgiving approach— brands have had to redefine what authenticity means for changing times.

How exactly have they been doing this? One approach is represented by Yoplait. Previously, the brand had made an unsuccessful foray into authentic healthiness with ‘Yoplait Greek’, an unimaginatively christened yoghurt that failed to resonate with consumers. But on the back of this has come their latest, and more successful, attempt at authenticity— a product named ‘oui’. Packaged in a glass pot and adorned with botanical drawings, ‘oui’ resembles homemade produce lovingly crafted in someone’s kitchen— yoghurt like grandma used to make. Accordingly, on-pack text describes an age-old technique drawn from the French countryside – where yoghurt is carefully cultured individual pots, rather than churned out en-masse in large batches. ‘oui’ represents authenticity as the return to simple, yet skilful, methods from pre-industrial times—it creates authenticity by harnessing a connection to the idyllic past.

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For other yoghurt brands, authenticity is less about the past and more about leveraging a cold, almost futuristic, ideal of naturalness. Consider how the Icelandic yoghurt skyr is marketed. Products often come in crystalline shades of white and blue, with on-pack images of fresh water and icebergs connoting the pristine, glacial landscapes of Nordic countries. Companies brand these yoghurts ‘authentic’ by signaling that they are drawn from an optimally pure natural source— and are therefore minimally sullied by spurious human interventions. In the same vein as other premium wellness products – from juice cleanses to luxury spas – skyr’s authenticity paradoxically comes from its connection to a hyper-real, immaculate abstraction of nature.

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Finally, some yoghurt brands seek authenticity in the present, by focusing on in-situ customisation experiences. In the UK, Mandira yoghurt in Covent Garden is one such brand, encouraging customers to try exotic flavor combinations from the sweet (raspberry + walnut) to the savoury (hummus + za’atar). Meanwhile in the US, Chobani not only runs several yoghurt bars, but also has a new ‘flip’ range where customers can personally measure and mix in the toppings they want. For these brands, authenticity means giving us maximum control over our consumption experiences – the most ‘authentic’ yoghurt is the yoghurt that we have created ourselves.

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Evidently, authenticity is a sales tactic that is (and has been) done by yoghurt brands across the board. Given the industry’s current woes, brands need to unlock fresher and more distinctive ways of tapping into the modern desire for genuine quality—and cultural understanding could well be the key that they need.

Shze Hui Tjoa, Semiotician

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