Chobani’s Accidental Culture War | Chemical & Engineering News
 
 
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Web Date: June 10, 2014

Chobani’s Accidental Culture War

How a yogurt lid marketing slogan pushed scientists’ emotional buttons
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: food chemistry, yogurt, Chobani, science communication

Piper Klemm did not set out to start a movement from the breakfast table. But when the chemist and startup company founder peeled back the foil lid on a container of Chobani Greek yogurt recently, she got angry.

The lid reads, “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists,” and promotes a Chobani social media campaign by adding the hashtag #howmatters. Klemm vented her rage on Twitter:

 
 
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Chobani introduced its 100-calorie product line in 2013.
Credit: Chobani
20140610lnp1-4packstrawberry
 
Chobani introduced its 100-calorie product line in 2013.
Credit: Chobani

Then, Klemm went about her day. When she next checked in, she was in the eye of an social media firestorm.

Scientists from all disciplines have rallied to Klemm’s cause. Chemists, entomologists, and programmers alike were sharing her photo of the yogurt lid and angrily denouncing Chobani. Some scientists indulged a little “hashtag activism” and turned the company’s #howmatters hashtag into something it did not expect. They reminded the firm just how much science goes into mass-producing and distributing its 100 calorie yogurt cups.

In response to the proscience outcry, Chobani’s Twitter feed turned into a stream of apologies. Some of the company’s tweets, for example one that claimed that the yogurt was “chemical-free,” only further raised researchers’ ire.

 
 

In a statement provided to C&EN, Chobani said it has discontinued the lid. Its message “was not intended as an indictment of science or scientists but a celebration of nature,” the statement reads. And Peter McGuinness, Chief of Marketing and Brand Officer at Chobani, offered an apology to pharmacologist and Forbes blogger David Kroll: “We’re a human company. We’re not perfect.”

“Can someone make yogurt at home? Absolutely,” says Kimberlee (K.J.) Burrington, an expert on cultured products, including yogurt, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Center for Dairy Research. “But to make good yogurt consistently, it’s important to know the science behind the process.”

Companies referring to products as natural are nothing new. But Klemm thinks she knows why this particular marketing faux-pas went viral. “Most of the things that say ‘chemical-free’ don’t attack scientists directly. I read this lid and it felt like an attack on me personally.”

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HOW IS YOGURT MADE?
Scientists have perfected a multistep process that turns milk into a high quality, mass produced yogurt product. To make Greek yogurt, manufacturers remove water by adding a centrifuge-like separation after the fermentation step.
Credit: Courtesy of KJ Burrington/Center for Dairy Research, U of Wisconsin, Madison
20140610lnp1-Yogurtprocessing
 
HOW IS YOGURT MADE?
Scientists have perfected a multistep process that turns milk into a high quality, mass produced yogurt product. To make Greek yogurt, manufacturers remove water by adding a centrifuge-like separation after the fermentation step.
Credit: Courtesy of KJ Burrington/Center for Dairy Research, U of Wisconsin, Madison

“I felt like I was being judged by my freaking yogurt,” agrees Gwen Pearson, the network manager for the Organization of Biological Field Stations. Pearson regularly purchases Chobani. So when she heard the news she went straight to her refrigerator and began opening containers. She found one of the infamous lids on her third try.

“It’s clear that the marketing team just didn’t think through all the angles for this campaign,” says Brigham Young University graduate student Chad Jones, who covered the fiasco on his podcast, “The Collapsed Wavefunction.”

Up to a point, the campaign was understandable, he says. It promoted the “natural” aspect of Chobani’s yogurt, something many consumers find appealing. “Hopefully Chobani’s learned some lessons that will spread through the industry,” Jones adds, “but that’s probably too optimistic.”

Klemm and Pearson both think that the situation was a success for science communication.Everyday people, Klemm says, want to talk about everyday aspects of science that she was never taught how to articulate. Concerns about food are at or near the top of the list. Chobani’s flub, she says, was an excuse for scientists to enter that conversation.

The incident “has had clear PR consequences for the company,” adds Pearson, who also blogs for WIRED magazine. “The mainstream news picked this story up, and they’ve got people talking about things like what ‘chemical’ means.”

Chobani will send a free yogurt to any scientist who contacts the company at www.chobani.com/care. But Pearson, now an ex-Chobani customer, offered this pointed response: “It’s going to take more than 99 cents’ worth of free yogurt to win me back.”

 
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Comments
Lynn A. Kuntz  (June 10, 2014 2:05 PM)
Nice article. One thing that you didn't cover was the science that went into the "natural" ingredients used in the yogurt. Stevia is a great example. I doubt Chobani crumbled dried stevia leaves into the yogurt. Plenty of chemists and food scientists working on improved stevia extracts. Or the yogurt cultures. Bet a few microbiologists had a hand in those. Engineers who set up the lines? Packaging scientists?
Carmen  (June 11, 2014 9:28 AM)
All good points, Lynn. I think the definition of "natural" is a squishy one these days. Looks like someone needs to do a comprehensive article on yogurt chemistry.
M Zeigler  (June 10, 2014 5:23 PM)
Hopefully they also have some scientists who can fix their continuing issue with moldy, exploding yogurts!
Carmen  (June 11, 2014 9:30 AM)
Yikes. I haven't heard about this. But I do know that Whole Foods dropped Chobani products late last year, because they use milk from cows fed genetically modified corn and soybeans.
Greg Laden  (June 10, 2014 5:40 PM)
I wrote this at the time: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/05/19/chobani-yoghurts-anti-science-stance-is-annoying/
Carmen  (June 11, 2014 9:24 AM)
Thanks for sharing, Greg! As a matter of fact, C&EN's managing editor Robin Giroux also saw this lid, at about the same time you did. She, too, dashed off an angry note to Chobani. Your two cases are an interesting study in what makes something go viral- I'm sure several scientists saw it and grumbled, but this lid caught the social media wave at exactly the right time!
Melody Bomgardner  (June 17, 2014 2:54 PM)
I was out when this kurfluffle happened. But my first thought in hearing the campaign was "Egads, I sure hope they have microbiologists!" And um, food safety scientists and so on. But fans of low-cal yogurt should read ingredients labels and decide for themselves how a particular brand went about lowering the calories of their yogurt.

Fact: full fat plain yogurt has somewhere around 150 calories per cup (8oz). For some reason, people seem to think yogurt is a high calorie food, but it's not that bad. The real thing is very filling, the sweetened low-cal stuff - not so much.
Ronald Sheinson  (June 19, 2014 7:59 AM)
This is not just about the stupidity of Chobani's advertising ploy. The real and lasting damage is the furthering of the gross misconception of irrational fear of "Chemicals." The further misguided populous will make even more incorrect decisions, some with significant implications for our society, as well as for the individuals involved. Being guided by correct science is key to many public decisions of our high tech society.
Ralph  (June 19, 2014 10:12 AM)
Chobani's advertising group was apparently playing into the general public's paranoia and ignorance about chemicals in general. "All Natural", "Organic" and "Chemical Free" are industry buzz words for healthy and pure and, by extension, scientists are the bad guys adulterating our food (artificial ingredients, GMOs, etc.). They deserved to be taken to task for this ad campaign perpetuating the ignorance.

To scientists, of course, "chemical free" is just another term for "vacuum" and we all know how Nature abhors that!
Barbara  (June 20, 2014 10:49 PM)
Can we also go after the "Applegate" ads where they don't want "hormones in my kids"? That would make adolescence easier! And they have something against ascorbic acid - Linus Pauling would be upset. Of course, "chemical free" is my favorite gripe! How can we educate the people??
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