Got Milk? Marketing by Association

got milk January 4, 2016 By: Jeff Manning

More than 20 years later, marketers still talk about the groundbreaking impact of the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. How did a quirky statewide campaign end up as one of the world's most acclaimed marketing programs? Here's what you can learn from the “godfather of Got Milk.”

Lauded as one of the most beloved and successful marketing campaigns ever, Got Milk? was born of desperation. The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) needed to reverse plunging industry sales fast, or its members could lose the farm. Got Milk? not only helped turn around milk sales, but also changed the face of consumer marketing forever.

The campaign, which turned a catchy milk mantra into a social icon, derived from more than just witty television commercials. Rather, it flowed from alliances with great food brands, innovative licensing deals, multicultural and internet marketing, powerful publicity, strong industry relations and revenue development, and careful choreography of every element within its broad-based strategy.

Historically, the dairy industry had channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into "good-for-you" advertising. Dairy leaders then watched as consumers reached for Coke, Snapple, or Gatorade, and milk sales steadily eroded. Clearly, the public's taste for milk had begun to sour.

California milk sales were declining 3 percent to 4 percent per year, faster than anywhere else in the country. For decades, the state's population growth had camouflaged the fact that per capita consumption was falling from 29 gallons in 1980 to 23 gallons in 1993. By early 1993, California milk processors had concluded that they could no longer depend on population growth to buoy sales, current marketing programs were not working, and they needed to take charge of their own marketing destiny.

Hired as the first paid staff member for the CMPB, I worked with the board to first establish an aggressive, numbers-driven objective: Stabilize and reverse milk sales. We could do this because we had enough money to get the job done. This alignment of goals and budgets is absolutely crucial to the success of any campaign or organization. Frankly, associations sometimes establish objectives that are unachievable within their budgets, ensuring that they will miss their marks.

Every company, every brand, every organization, every association should fight for this type of differentiating competitive strategy.

A Strategy of Deprivation and "Terror"

Our next step—a global review of milk marketing—revealed a stunning finding: Every branded and generic campaign was based on a "good-for-you" strategy aimed at improving consumer attitudes. The problem? Some 96 percent of U.S. consumers already believed that milk was healthy; more than half said that they should drink more; and all the "good-for-you" stuff hadn't increased sales.

Obviously, we needed a campaign founded on an entirely different strategic platform. Toward that end, we recognized that milk (unlike sodas, bottled water, and sports drinks) is seldom consumed as a standalone beverage. More than 90 percent of all milk occasions are with food, especially "codependent food" such as cookies, brownies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chocolate flavorings, and, of course, cold cereal. (In fact, 25 percent of all milk is consumed from a bowl.) Most important, though, was that the only time people care passionately about milk is when they run out—that common, terrible situation when they pour the cereal, slice the banana, and then find that the carton has been returned to the fridge empty. Got Milk? was born.

The magic of the resulting "milk deprivation strategy" for Got Milk? was fivefold:

1. The premise is true. It reflects the way people actually consume milk.
2. It was a radical departure from everything that had been done before and was incredibly newsworthy.
3. It led to smart, humorous advertising that people coveted.
4. Milk-deprivation was inclusive. Running out of milk was just as aggravating for an 80-year-old man as it was for an eight-year-old kid.
5. It was intensely competitive. You simply could not dunk your Oreos in Coke or Snapple.

Every company, every brand, every organization, every association should fight for this type of differentiating competitive strategy.

Measuring Milk

Prior to launching Got Milk? we needed to deal with metrics. How were we going to evaluate the program and provide a return on investment to our stakeholders? We decided not to research consumer attitudes. (As my then-chairman said, "Try taking attitudes to the bank.") Rather, we conducted benchmark, pre-campaign research on milk usage.

Called the "Beyond the Glass" study, it tracked how much milk was consumed with what foods by whom at what hours of the day and night. For the first time, the industry could track behavior. This same study has been fielded at least once per year since 1993, providing a rich, albeit sometimes painful, look at what's going down people's gullets.

Got Milk? advertising launched in late 1993, and included "Aaron Burr," a hilarious television commercial about the famous duel with Alexander Hamilton. It was unexpected, funny, risky, and planted Got Milk? into the California vernacular. The advertising agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, was a relatively small, local shop. Unlike so many of the monolithic agencies, the principals were personally involved in the creation of the work. (Jeff Goodby wrote the line "Got Milk?")

Awareness of Got Milk? reached 90 percent in California by 1995, and massive news coverage boosted visibility nationally. The tracking study indicated that household penetration was holding steady (around 70 percent) and that people were using more milk more often. We also tracked monthly milk sales as stated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. While self-reported and thus imperfect, these sales figures provided a litmus test of the program that improved stakeholders' confidence that the staff and board were committed and accountable.

It didn't hurt that, in addition to sales, there were awards—crates of them. In fact, between 1994 and 2005, Got Milk? won just about every coveted creative and marketing award around. It also became one of the most ripped-off lines in marketing history and clearly entered pop culture.

Marketing by Association

While awards are all well and wonderful, five lessons from the campaign seldom receive the credit that they deserve, especially within the association community. All are crucial for nonprofit leaders, regardless of their organization's scope or profession.

Lesson 1: Go beyond the color white. In the early 1990s, few branded companies or associations recognized the size, growth curve, or buying power of the Hispanic market. But it was impossible for the California milk industry to ignore, with half of Los Angeles speaking Spanish. Luckily, we didn't follow our initial instincts and force-feed Got Milk? to the Latino community. Research indicated that Hispanics were heavy milk consumers already but didn't think running out of milk was funny and sometimes, because of differences in usage that are not accounted for in translation, misunderstood Got Milk? to mean "Are you lactating?"

Instead, we marketed to Hispanics in a more traditional, food-and-family way, with a focus on milk-based recipes and cooking. Feedback from the community indicated that this approach was culturally astute and promoted increased milk usage. This multicultural effort also generated widespread news coverage, from local Hispanic newspapers to the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Today, it's not optional for associations to question whether to delve deeply into ethnic marketing. Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians are no longer "minorities"; they are members, officers, customers, and consumers.

Lesson 2: Leverage strategic publicity. Far too often publicity is seen as a defensive tactic, a means to control damage. For our organization, it was a weapon, a way to help transfer Got Milk? from a tagline to an icon. Ironically, it took a $300,000 mistake to drive this point home. Early in 1994 we launched a public relations event whereby people, including some Hollywood folks, went without milk. We then built a story around their deprivation tales. The media didn't blink. Not an article or TV segment ran.

Cobranding and collaboration are becoming more critical, and few companies, brands, or associations can afford to isolate themselves.

When called, reporters told us that milk wasn't news. Milk was white, boring, and for babies. They then asked if we did the Got Milk? commercials, the ones where the people got stuck with food in their mouths but had no milk. We said, "Sure." "Great," they replied. "We want to do a feature."

Since then, PR efforts have focused squarely on the ads and campaign. Got Milk? is news; milk seldom is. We learned to treat the media as seriously as any target audience, to listen hard and work within their priorities, not ours. This proactive, thoughtful use of PR will work regardless of an association's product or service.

Lesson 3: Don't try to do it alone. Prior to Got Milk? the dairy industry was a standalone marketer. Milk was portrayed cold and white in a glass. The problem was that people didn't consume milk that way. They gulped and guzzled milk with food.

Accordingly, rather than avoid foods such as cookies and cereal because they had sugar and calories, we aggressively sought them out as partners. Nestlé put Got Milk? on Nesquik boxtops, and Pillsbury allowed us to use its treasured doughboy in a TV commercial. After long negotiations, Got Milk? Oreos were introduced in 2004, with Nabisco embossing our trademark on hundreds of millions of its cookies. And by leveraging the brand recognition of beloved cereal characters such as the Trix rabbit and Snap, Crackle, and Pop (the Rice Krispies mascots) in our ads, we helped sell more of their cereal and our milk.

One of our least obvious but hugely successful partnerships was with Dole. This union was based solely on the fact that bananas are the number-one fresh fruit used on cereal. I had roamed a local produce department at the grocery store and zeroed in on those lovely little stickers found on every Dole banana. Only a few months after that visit, Got Milk? stickers could be found on 100 million banana bunches. That's how fast some partnerships—the ones in which everyone truly wins—can come to be.

We also combined forces with nonfood brands, including Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, Barbie dolls, and the Girl Scouts of America. Cobranding and collaboration are becoming more critical, and few companies, brands, or associations can afford to isolate themselves.

Lesson 4: Create association assets. Nonprofits seldom think in terms of licensing and assets. I certainly didn't. However, by the end of 1994, Got Milk? had received a ton of national publicity and was being used by local dairy associations around the country. We were then approached by one of the national groups, which asked to license the Got Milk? trademark and campaign. We agreed, and by 1997, every dairy organization was licensing Got Milk?, including the famous milk mustache people.

We also received a call from the Barbie brand manager (I thought she had the wrong number). She asked if the company could introduce a Got Milk? Barbie, complete with bovine attire and milk bottle. I nearly wrecked the deal by asking for royalties. Fortunately, I realized we could never afford the equivalent of such fantastic advertising, so I simply said, "Go right ahead."

Initially, I was less enthused about the creation of a Got Milk? website. I mean, consumers couldn't buy milk online. What I didn't see at first was that people would lap up Got Milk? T-shirts, baby clothes, and teen apparel. finally launched in 1998, and I quickly learned not to underestimate the potential for associations to develop properties. Ultimately, the trademark generated well more than $10 million in licensing revenues. Perhaps more important, it helped transform the trademark from a tagline into a property and asset.

Lesson 5: Know how to extend your expiration date. In 2002, milk deprivation was a maturing strategy, and the industry had learned from the campaign how to better identify and address changing trends. Dairy leaders noticed that the calcium competition was intensifying. Dozens of foods and beverages—orange juice, bread, cereal, bottled waters, even soda—were being fortified with calcium. The calcium-supplement industry was ramping up, and lactose intolerance was becoming the disease du jour. It was time to step back, take a tough look, and rethink how milk was positioned—something that every association should practice honestly and objectively.

That said, I recall when I nearly misread my board of directors years earlier. Without my realizing it, some of my board members had gotten a bit bored with the campaign. At a meeting when we were discussing another of the agency's stellar ads, they started questioning why we weren't touting the old "good-for-you" message.

As I wrote in Got Milk? The Book, I was startled and realized that I had not managed the expectations of board members very well. Instead of moving straight into the new commercials, I should have led a discussion first about what the campaign could and could not likely deliver, as well as demonstrate why the milk-deprivation strategy was still connecting with consumers and the press. Although the board did reaffirm its support for Got Milk?, I know that we came close that day to losing an icon.

When the calcium discussion arose, I remembered this lesson, and we did indeed work as a group to shed long-held beliefs in order to reignite Got Milk? The result was a shift to a strategy aimed at elevating milk calcium above its competition. Further, we decided to leverage medical research, current events, and hot issues. This shift led to communications that exposed milk's value in reducing the effects of premenstrual syndrome and its role as a sports-enhancement "substance" secretly used by professional athletes (not well received by Major League Baseball).

These lessons, taken together with the overall Got Milk? campaign, are potent reminders that change within our industries and society is accelerating, and we must constantly reevaluate our programs and marketing strategies to measure and respond to it. As association leaders, we need to toss aside entrenchment and rigidity and instead embrace smart, timely strategic change. For Got Milk?, the proof has been in the pudding.

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in 2006, has been updated.

Jeff Manning

Jeff Manning is principal of Got Manning?, a brand and marketing consultancy. For nearly 13 years, he was executive director of the California Milk Processor Board.