Ben & Jerrys launch could provide impetus to the sector

Ben & Jerry's launch could provide impetus to the sector

Unilever's Ben & Jerry's brand is launching a three-product strong line of Greek-style frozen yoghurt in the UK. The move is a category first and the group believes that it can stimulate incremental sales growth, bringing new consumers to both the brand and category. However, Greek yoghurt and frozen yoghurt sales in the UK have not performed as strongly as across the pond in the US. Is Ben & Jerry's the brand that will kick-start the category? Katy Askew reports.

Greek yoghurt has been an amazing success story in the US. Greek yoghurt sales have expanded from 1% of total US yoghurt sales in 2007 to 44% of the market last year. And, for indulgent ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's, this growth has also been reflected in the freezer aisle.

Unilever launched Ben & Jerry's Greek frozen yoghurt in the US in 2012. The company offers eight varieties of Greek fro yo in the market, where sales are now "on a par" with those of the core ice cream offering, UK assistant brand manager Zhelin Chen tells just-food.

"When we launched in the US, 40% of buyers were new buyers to both Ben & Jerry's and the luxury ice cream category," Chen says.

The company hopes that it can replicate that level of success in the UK.

This month, Unilever started to roll out three varieties of Greek frozen yoghurt in the market: Strawberry Shortcake, Raspberry Chocolate Chunk and Vanilla Honey Caramel.

The launch will be supported by an GBP8m (US$13.26m) marketing campaign including online, cinema and TV spots as well as sampling in the summer. It is the biggest marketing spend behind the Ben & Jerry's brand ever in the country, Chen reveals.

With such a strong performance in the US, the home of many a food innovation that has subsequently swept Europe, perhaps Unilever is right to feel confident in the potential growth on offer.

However, Greek-style yoghurt has not experienced the same whirlwind popularity in the UK as it saw in the US. And, although frozen yoghurt sales have doubled between 2010 and 2013, this growth has come off a very small base. Frozen yoghurt sales now account for around 2% of the total ice cream market in the country.

Mintel's Alex Beckett tells just-food that, despite a "record" number of product launches last year in frozen yoghurt, interest Greek frozen yoghurt has remained subdued throughout Europe. "Greek frozen yoghurt in Europe has really been very niche. National. There has, appropriately, been more activity in Greece," he says.

However, Beckett believes that a big bang launch from a leading brand like Ben & Jerry's could do much to stimulate growth in the sector. "Seeing a brand like Ben & Jerry's come along, could be the impetus that Greek frozen yoghurt - and frozen yoghurt more generally - has needed and the entire category could benefit," he predicts.

"What we really require [to stimulate category growth] is an explosive message, a big fan fair arrival.... They are well-placed in a sense that they have the brand awareness, the marketing budget. Sampling and road shows have been a great success in the US... It is a great time of year to launch and they are experts at using Twitter to create a buzz."

To Beckett's mind, Unilever would do well to focus its marketing message on communicating the benefits of Greek fro yo. "The why is the big question here. Why should people swap from regular ice cream?... From a longer-term perspective, a focus on the protein message could be beneficial," he suggests.

Greek-style Ben & Jerry's frozen yoghurt benefits from the a halo of health associated with being both Greek-style and frozen yoghurt. Focusing on the lower-fat higher protein aspects of the product could extend its appeal to a wider audience, Beckett argues. 

Indeed, according to Mintel data, one in five European adults are trying to eat more protein while 38% of UK adults would deliberately pick a high-protein option.

Ben & Jerry's Greek-style frozen yoghurt also contains 40% less fat than regular Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

However, Chen tells just-food, "it isn't healthy enough for us to call it healthy". Instead, the company is focusing its marketing message on the "fun" aspect of the brand.

A spokesperson for the group adds: "Ben & Jerry's brand is based on creating exciting and different flavours and making a stand on issues which affect their fans... There are no plans to push messaging on lower fat or higher protein as these are an added qualities that matter to buyers."

Possibly, one reason that the brand has decided not to dwell too heavily on health messaging is that consumers buying indulgence ice creams want exactly that - indulgence.

"Consumers looking to treat themselves occasionally don't want to compromise on the indulgent experience offered by premium ice creams. The perception of ‘Better for You' ranges as lacking in taste and flavour mean that products focusing solely on the improved health aspect will struggle to gain market share. Consumers are willing to trade-up for the overall indulgent experience offered by premium ice cream and will not sacrifice taste for health," Canadean analyst Sam Allen tells just-food.

"Canadean has tracked the influence of 20 key consumer motivations, and health and wellness ranks consistently low across indulgent categories such as ice cream and confectionery. Consumers seeking indulgent treats don't believe that products positioned as ‘healthier alternatives' can really contribute to health and wellness in any meaningful way; they are just slightly less harmful and the transparency of health claims is becoming increasingly important to UK consumers who are becoming saturated by vague, non-specific health claims."

So, rather than an out-and-out health message, Unilever is positioning Ben & Jerry's Greek-style frozen yoghurt and a "permissible" treat. It is lower in fat - and it does contain more protein - but the real kicker here is that it offers all the "fun" and "creativity" that the Ben & Jerry's brand prides itself on.

This, Unilever believes, will bring incremental sales to both the brand and the category by drawing in new customers and increasing purchase frequency. If the company is right, Greek-style fro yo could be set to become one of the trending treats of the summer.