In 1993, the “Sun Burger,” a vegetarian soy burger, was introduced. It would eventually spawn the highly successful Boca Foods, profiled on brandchannel. At the time, soy milk was sold primarily in health stores, in aseptic packaging so the product could be kept indefinitely on the shelf. Soy milk was a fringe product. It didn’t need refrigeration, so it wasn’t stocked next to cow milk in the dairy case. It wasn’t even thought of as a competitor to cow milk.
In 1996, along came a small Colorado company, White Wave, with the goal of changing the rules. White Wave’s idea was to produce refrigerated soy milk and compete head-on with cow milk. Some thought they were crazy. Turns out they were crazy like a cow… er, fox.
White Wave created a dry soy mixture and shipped it off to the same dairies that processed cow milk. The dairies added water, packaged the product in Silk’s handsome containers, shaped like traditional milk cartons, and distributed it. The dairies used downtime in their processing plants to make the soy milk and generate a little extra revenue.
The technique separated Silk from other soy milks. White Wave decided to be conservative, however, and first market Silk through natural food stores, where they believed the product would find a more “natural” customer base. But White Wave was emboldened when, in October 1999, the FDA announced that soy was considered a heart-healthy food that could lower bad cholesterol.
This was the turning point for Silk. To make the best use of its meager marketing budget, White Wave launched a guerilla marketing campaign, relying largely on aggressive store sampling. Silk was packaged in half-pints, like the little milk cartons kids get at school. These samples were offered free to shoppers on their way out of traditional grocery stores, along with coupons. This way, mom and dad could try the product at home, reducing the in-store pressure to purchase. The half-pints prominently carried the FDA’s endorsement of soy.
At the same time, White Wave lobbied traditional grocers to place Silk in the dairy case, next to the cow milk. The company guaranteed to remove the product if it did not sell.
The product packaging used color photography to differentiate Silk from traditional milk. Cartons carried interesting facts about soy, as well as eco-friendly information. Early on, Silk associated itself with alternative energy, such as wind-power, to show its commitment to healthy living and its concern for the environment.
White Wave invested its promotional budget wisely, purchasing outdoor billboards and signage on buses and trucks in select cities where their distribution was strongest. White Wave used lush full-color photos of the soy milk flowing against brightly colored backgrounds. White Wave purchased sponsorships on local National Public Radio stations instead of commercial stations to lend credibility to the product and target the NPR demographic.
Silk first created and then dominated the refrigerated soy milk category. The brand went from zero market share in 1996 to 85 percent market share in 2003. The chocolate-flavored Silk became popular with adults and rose to the number two best-selling chocolate milk brand in the US.
As you might expect, Silk’s success did not go unnoticed. In 2001, Dean Foods Co. acquired White Wave for US$ 154 million.
Today, the soy milk market is a whole different world. Silk’s worldwide market share is about 67 percent as competitors have flooded the category. But Silk remains the best-selling soy milk brand in the US. Now Silk comes in twelve flavors and is available in 98 percent of grocery stores. As a Dean Foods subsidiary, White Wave is the leading soyfood company in the world with almost US$ 434 million in retail sales, according to the company.
Silk smartly entered into a brand alliance with Starbucks. Starbucks’ US retail locations carry an exclusive formulation of Silk Soymilk for its customers. Starbucks also sells this special version of Silk in quart containers.
As a brand, Silk continues to keep a high profile when it comes to involvement in the world’s challenges. Silk has won the “Green Power Leadership Award” for using and promoting renewable energy from the US Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Silk partnered with sister company Horizon Organic in support of FARM AID 2006, the fifth year Silk sponsored the event.
Silk continues to use the product sampling strategy that was responsible for its early success. In February 2007, for example, Silk and cereal maker Kashi joined forces to hand out 250,000 samples of each product in a promotion that targeted businesses in three large US cities.
In 2006, Silk ran a new national advertising campaign with the objective of broadening the brand’s appeal and promoting product trial. “Silk Soymilk Cows”—people dressed up in cow outfits—advocated the use of soy milk in television ads. The point of the advertising was to suggest that, if cows were choosing milk for their own families, they’d choose soy milk. Both the message and the humor may have been lost on consumers; the advertising community derided the ads, believing they were silly and ineffective.
Soymilk cows not withstanding, Silk Soymilk continues as the brand leader in a product category that has strong growth on its side. When many consumers are looking for easy ways to add healthful soy to their diets, Silk is a natural choice.