Dairy is a legacy industry with a core base of consumers, but it still has to compete for trust and buy-in to stay relevant in today’s world.

The industry continues to attract new customers by connecting to a broader, more modern audience in a variety of different ways.

The pace of change in the world rapidly continues and it’s evident when you look at how kids interact in today’s society. Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which manages the national dairy checkoff, is focused on connecting with younger audiences who are having a bigger influence on purchase decisions now and will impact the dairy industry for decades as they become parents.

“Today’s kids are growing up in a world where they have never known life without the Internet or a cell phone,” said Serena Schaffner, senior vice president of communications, DMI. “The morning newspaper or 6 o’clock news are not part of their daily routine, yet they have more access to information than any generation before them, especially when it comes to food and beverage options. Because of their access to information and online influences, kids have a different relationship with food than their parents ever did.”

Schaffner said DMI has found that many kids are focused on social causes, such as the environment, so they are seeking options that they will feel good about, and they want to understand more about how these products are produced.

“If they feel an industry or a company is not aligned with their standards, they are not afraid to call them out and boycott those products,” she said.

Checkoff research shows younger consumers are interested in some of the lesser-known wellness benefits of dairy that can drive purchase decisions with them, Schaffner said.

“These benefits are immunity, calm, energy and digestive health, and can meet this generation’s changing perceptions and behaviors for what they believe foods and beverages should deliver,” she said. “These benefits serve as the cornerstone of the checkoff’s Reset Yourself with Dairy campaign, which combines nutrition science with humor to deliver these attributes in a non-salesy way.”

The campaign earned a best-in-class International Milk Promotions Trophy at the World Dairy Summit 2022. It had been 11 years since a US organization was recognized this way.


Cracking the code

Schaffner said DMI is cracking the marketing code by focusing on the right consumers with the right message and with the right partner.MrBeast dairy farm dairy checkoff dairy farm tour YouTubePhoto: Jimmy Donaldson/MrBeast

“It’s no longer a traditional method of checkoff advertising that we did in the past, but a change in times demanded a change in strategy. We talk a lot about dairy ‘showing up differently’ and we are,” she said.

Schaffner said young consumers are relying on social media outlets for their information and are especially turning to influencers who they trust.

“They also enjoy gaming, and most are very familiar with Jimmy Donaldson — aka ‘MrBeast’ — who is arguably the world’s biggest gaming icon. The dairy checkoff is working with MrBeast for a second time, and while he previously conducted a virtual dairy farm tour to incorporate content into his platform, he saw the real thing in person last year when he visited a dairy in his home state of North Carolina,” she said. “A video he produced from that visit generated 3 million views in 24 hours and became the No. 1 video on all of YouTube. There is no other medium that could generate this sort of attention for dairy, and young consumers trust him when he talks about how well farmers care for the environment and their cows.”


Going viral

DMI is credited with the viral butter board trend. The “butter board” food craze that has become a viral sensation is rooted in dairy checkoff strategy. This is part of what the checkoff’s modern marketing strategy looks like.

DMI assembled a “Dairy Dream Team” consisting of chefs, recipe developers, “foodies,” gamers and lifestyle influencers who have a combined 25 million social media followers. They are joined by another 100-plus influencers who work with state and regional checkoff teams and are tasked with presenting unique recipes and ways dairy can be enjoyed by consumers.

“This is where the ‘butter board’ craze originated and created a lightning-strike moment for dairy,” Schaffner said. “A TikTok video featuring steps to create a butter board was produced by ‘Dream Team’ member Justine Doiron, who showed how using multiple sticks of soft butter can be mixed with ingredients, such as vegetables, in a fashion similar to a charcuterie board. Doiron’s post went viral, generating millions of views and national media coverage, and inspired people to post their own butter board versions on TikTok, Instagram and other social media channels.”

Justine Doiron Butter Board TikTok dairy checkoff Dairy Management Inc. DMIPhoto: Justine Doiron, via Dairy Management Inc.

That wasn’t the only successful social media strategy of 2022 for the dairy checkoff, Schaffner said.

“We also took advantage of the popular social media trend ‘hacks’ and worked with influential social media personalities to showcase their creative ways dairy can be hacked,” she said. “We partnered with humorous food-obsessed influencers who have well into the millions of followers on channels such as TikTok and YouTube. TikTok influencers such as @newt (9.4 million followers), @liamslunchbox (4.2 million), @moribyan (3.9 million) and @mishas_kitchen (842,000 followers) shared how their followers can enjoy dairy in ways they may have never thought possible.”


Marketing sustainably

According to Jenny Hofeditz, vice president of public relations and marketing for Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), dairy farmers have been on a sustainability journey long before it was a buzzword with consumers.

“They’re always thinking about the next sustainable effort or technology for their farm, because taking care of the land, their animals and the air and water around them means preserving the farm to be here for the next generation,” she said.

As DFA continued to see increasing interest from consumers in knowing more about where their food comes from, coupled with growing expectations for brands to take a stand and provide proof of their socially and environmentally responsible behavior, Hofeditz said it saw a need to communicate dairy’s positive story and began doing research to develop a campaign concept. Hence, the Nerd Herd campaign.

“The Nerd Herd campaign was born out of these research insights, and centers on helping tell consumers about our farmer-owners’ sustainability initiatives, while also inspiring consumer confidence in enjoying their favorite dairy products,” she said. “As we continue to evolve the campaign to ensure we are reaching our target consumers, we have done a lot of work to better define our targeting and identify a sustainability-minded audience for the campaign, which has allowed us to effectively talk to our target consumer and drive efficiencies with our marketing dollars/spend.”


Understanding farm-to-table

Hofeditz said the ultimate goal with the Nerd Herd campaign is to help consumers understand more about the farm-to-table journey of dairy — that DFA farmer-owners are driving solutions that benefit the environment — and how their favorite dairy products are sustainably made.

“The challenge is that we’ve needed to take pretty complex topics — how farmers are using renewable energy methods, regenerative agriculture, etc. — and distill them into 15-second and 30-second videos that make these concepts easily understandable and digestible for consumers,” she said. “As we continued to evolve the campaign in 2022, each of our ad executions focused on telling a story about a specific dairy product such as milk, cheese, ice cream or butter, and how these products are tied to DFA’s sustainability efforts and offer proof that dairy is good for you and the planet.”

The campaign has been very well received and has extended DFA’s engagement targets with consumers watching the videos and recognizing DFA as a sustainable brand, Hofeditz said.

“Because many of the activations have been in digital and social media spaces, we’ve been able to have good two-way dialogue with consumers about the value of sustainability and the progress we’ve made as a cooperative and an industry,” she said. “Our farmer-owners have been very proud to see that the actions they’re taking on their farms are being recognized. We have also used actual owners of the cooperative, our farmers, in the video spots, which has both surprised and delighted consumers. As we head into our third year of the campaign, we’ll be looking at additional ways to engage consumers and help them feel confident that the dairy they love is sustainably made.”


Staying relevant

Hofeditz said DFA always looks for opportunities to leverage insights so that it can reach the right people at the right time.

“Our launch ad for the 2022 Nerd Herd campaign was built on a trend that we were seeing with our target audience around their love for spicy foods,” she said. “Because milk is the ultimate heat cutter for spicy foods, our Nerd Herd ad showed that milk doesn’t just cut the heat in spicy foods, but it can also help protect the environment by helping cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to heating the planet.”

To further bring to life milk’s heat-cutting abilities, DFA sponsored a custom episode with one of the most popular celebrity interview shows on YouTube, “Hot Ones,” featuring the show’s host Sean Evans.

“Sean is well known for sitting down with celebrities for questions over progressively spicy hot wings — the questions get progressively more difficult, too — with the celebrity guests often drinking milk on set to help with the heat factor,” Hofeditz said. “The signature interview, brought to viewers by Dairy Farmers of America on World Milk Day, gave long-time viewers the much-requested opportunity to see Evans, known as the ‘Spiciest Man Alive,’ answer the questions with Complex’s Speedy Morman. And, when the questions got too spicy, Evans was able to turn to his trusted glass of milk.”

Hofeditz said DFA makes a point to evolve and look at trends and research to ensure the cooperative is staying relevant to the needs and desires of its target consumers.

“We leverage data and analytics to help us test and learn, drive optimizations and consider new or emerging media platforms and channels,” she said. “We also love the dialogue that can occur with consumers in the digital and social spaces and how your biggest fans can help support marketing initiatives by spreading and sharing your messaging.”