Ahead of PSFK CONFERENCE 2013, Hamdi Ulukaya speaks with PSFK about how the consumers themselves helped him form his product.
As part of the run-up to PSFK CONFERENCE 2013 in New York this April, PSFK will be publishing a series of short interviews with speakers to give a taste of what will be discussed in this meeting of creative minds. Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and president of Chobani, will be speaking about his brand and how it now has the biggest market share in the Greek Yogurt space. He chatted with PSFK about the company’s meteoric rise and its charitable aims.
What made you decide to experiment with Greek Yogurt, and why did you think it would be successful?
Growing up in Turkey, authentic strained yogurt was a staple of our diet — it was a part of almost every meal and eaten several times a day. When I came to the US in 1994, I was shocked at the sad state of yogurt in America. It was sugar-laden and runny, nothing like I had enjoyed back home and nobody here really ate yogurt. Greek yogurt existed in America at the time, but it was confined to specialty or niche gourmet stores. I truly believed Americans would enjoy real, simple yogurt, if it was affordable and accessible in a mass way. And that’s the basis on which Chobani was founded.
Amidst running feta cheese company I still own and operate, I stumbled upon an ad for a closed yogurt plant in 2005. I trusted my gut and decided to purchase it on the spot with the help of an SBA 504 loan. A team of five and myself took nearly 18 months to perfect the recipe for Chobani. The first cup hit shelves in 2007, and the rest is history.
What steps did you take to garner brand recognition and compel consumers to give your product a second look?
To succeed, a quality product is key— especially in the food category. We knew we had a great tasting, good-for-you product, now we just needed to get people to try it. Sampling and word-of-mouth was huge for us, especially at the start, as we had no money for traditional marketing or advertising.
We toured the country with our CHOmobile, handing out free cups of Chobani to consumers at family-friendly events. Once people took a taste, it was love at first bite. We established our presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter very early on, and engaged with our consumers to build brand loyalty. We cultivated early connections with Chobani-acs to help them spread word of mouth recommendation within their own networks.
How have you continued to make your brand relevant given today’s increasingly crowded ‘Greek Yogurt’ space?
We believe the yogurt story in this country is just getting started— while the Greek yogurt category is growing quickly, general awareness of Greek yogurt is low. It’s a really exciting time. We just opened up a new plant in Twin Falls, Idaho that is the world’s largest yogurt manufacturing facility. This allows us to increase our production capacity to get more products on shelves and introduce new product innovations.
In January 2013, we launched a few new products to change the way people think about yogurt: Chobani Bite, a smaller yet decadent snack; Chobani Flip, flavored yogurt with real nut and granola mix-ins; and Champions Tubes, our Greek yogurt for kids in a portable tube. The sky’s the limit and we’ll continue to push the boundaries in reimagining yogurt and food.
But Chobani is more than a product or brand— it’s a lifestyle. I once had a fan share with me that her daily cup of Chobani reminds her to be good to herself. That’s special. When we go beyond the cup to impact people’s lives for the better, that’s relevance for consumer’s everyday lives.
How do you use your brand to contribute to the community at large?
At Chobani, we believe that success only gets bigger when you share it. Through our Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, we give 10% of our profits back to organizations worldwide working towards positive, long-lasting change. We’ve donated to dozens of very special causes to date, including local NYC-based non-profit Sing for Hope which will provide access to the arts for all this summer through their public piano installation.
Most importantly, our local communities are the roots enabling us to grow. We give back to local organizations and go further to donate our time and resources to events like food drives, local 5K races, YMCA events, and more. It’s a blessing to see the communities around us continue to grow and thrive as we do. To me, that makes everything worth it.