Using Milk-Carton Ads to Build Strong Brands
By PHILIP GRAY Published: August 26, 2009
HOPING to reach children at school and shoppers at the store, a growing number of national brands are turning to an old medium: milk cartons.
The ads on the smallest cartons, the half-pints that are distributed through school lunch programs, are aimed at children. Larger containers, like gallon jugs, are intended to reach the adults who do the shopping for their households – the people who decide whether to pick up a box of brownie mix or try a new cereal.
Milk cartons have long been used as billboards, though the messages have evolved. In the early 1980s, cartons showed pictures of missing children, but those campaigns have moved to the Internet. Dairies promote milk on packaging and have done campaigns for local brands and sports teams. With myriad ads showing up in stores this summer – for Stouffer’s frozen dinners, a new “Pinocchio” DVD and Cheerios – milk is increasingly a platform for national brands, said Chris Barkley, president of the advertising company BoxTop Media.
BoxTop focuses on products with “an affiliation with milk,” namely, Mr. Barkley said, “all the big cereal players and the cookie players.” General Mills promoted Cheerios with stickers on gallon jugs, and Kraft nudged shoppers toward the snack aisle with ads for Honey Maid graham crackers. In stores in New York and other major American markets this summer, stickers appeared promoting Duncan Hines with a photo of brownies and the text: “Cold Milk, Warm Brownies, mmmmmmmm.”
Audiences may have scattered to cable, Facebook, Google News and Hulu, but the milk jug is one mass medium that still reaches the masses. For each person in the United States, more than 20 gallons of milk is produced each year, according to the most recent data from the Agriculture Department. Gary A. Hemphill of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, an industry group, says milk is unique in that it is a bottled drink and also an ingredient for baking and cereal. “It finds its way into most refrigerators in the homes of Americans,” he said.
Appeals to this vast audience can also home in on specific demographics. Stickers on low-fat milk would be more likely to reach consumers with above-average incomes and educations, according to Beverage Marketing, and whole-milk drinkers tend to be younger. This helps to explain the BoxTop Media ads that don’t have clear ties to milk, like the stickers featuring USA Today and children’s series like “Sid the Science Kid.” A gallon of milk is the place to be, Mr. Barkley said, “if you want to reach moms with large households.”
BoxTop Media hired the research company Knowledge Networks to find out whether these ads were effective, using data from loyalty card programs like the Safeway Club Card. Al Halkuff, a senior vice president of Knowledge Networks, said that for the 25 to 30 campaigns he had studied, there was a “significant improvement in sales.” For a large brand, he said, a significant increase could be 4 to 6 percent, and for a new or smaller brand, sales could double.
Brands for children can reach a captive audience in lunchrooms nationwide, but marketers say they are careful to focus on a healthy message rather than a sales pitch. The ads intended for schoolchildren, from kindergarten to 12th grade, are often promoting milk itself, using characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to appeal to younger students and performers like Rascal Flatts for the preteenagers and teenagers.
The idea for campaigns like these came in 1996 when an advertising executive, Richard Long of Long Advertising, offered International Paper, one of his clients, an alternative to its Rudy the Raccoon character “to make milk cool.”
“We suggested to them that if you really want kids to listen to this message and pay attention to it,” he said, “you should use the kind of character they know and love.”
Disney sponsored the first campaign, featuring Doug Funnie of the cartoon “Doug” on about 25 panels. This led to other sponsorships, featuring characters like Batman and the Transformers. The message expanded as well, so that today the cartons, which go to 70,000 schools in the continental United States, are as likely to advocate reading or exercise as milk.
Promotions that reach children at school can be touchy. Mr. Long created a new company, MilkMedia, to separate this kind of work from his advertising agency, and he said it was vigilant about keeping its campaigns on topic: Disney was paying the bill for that first campaign, but the message was “drink milk,” not “watch Doug.'” Last year, one campaign for milk, sponsored by Build-A-Bear Workshop, raised alarms because it encouraged children to visit a virtual world, BuildaBearville.com, which invites users to “buy a furry friend.”
A parent complained to the Erie, Pa., school district. MilkMedia and the owner of the dairy that supplied the milk, Dean Foods, agreed to end the promotion. The Build-A-Bear ads focused on milk, but “there was a concern because it had a push to the retail outlet,” said Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for Dean Foods, by far the largest American milk producer. “I’m a mom,” she said. “I get it.”
Mr. Long of MilkMedia, himself a father of two, said campaigns since had been stricter: “It’s not permissible to say in any way, shape or form, Come into the store.'”
The toughened guidelines do not seem to have hurt MilkMedia, nor does the decline in ad spending over all. “We haven’t seen any drop-off in sponsors who are interested in participating,” Mr. Long said. “Their brand is visible, and they make that positive association between what’s being done and their brand.”