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Danone Finds Yogurt’s All Greek as Oikos Chases Chobani

August 29, 2013
Greek Yogurt

The world’s largest yogurt maker aims to take back the dairy aisle with its Dannon Oikos brand.

Julie Cruz

Chobani Inc. got Americans hooked on Greek yogurt. Now Danone wants to slip the stuff into products from dips to dessert in a bid to unseat the market leader.

After being blindsided by the upstart -- Chobani became the biggest U.S. seller of Greek yogurt two years after releasing its first product -- the world’s largest yogurt maker aims to take back the dairy aisle with its Dannon Oikos brand.

With pictures of an ancient building on every package and following a Super Bowl ad starring Greek-American actor John Stamos to boost its Hellenic bonafides, Oikos grew 165 percent in the year through May, according to researcher Mintel. Though Chobani’s sales rose more than 20 percent, Mintel estimates, it has lost share for 18 straight four-week periods, investment research firm Sanford C. Bernstein says.

Winning in the $7.6 billion American yogurt market means winning in Greek: The product will account for more than half of all U.S. yogurt sales within six months, Bernstein estimates. To get ahead, Danone is selling dips in flavors such as cucumber dill and French onion, and is running a trial of Oikos frozen yogurt to extend the brand.

"It’s a two-horse race," said Joe Pawlak, vice president at food-industry researcher Technomic Inc. in Chicago. "Chobani is the leader and Danone has the marketing muscle."

The turnaround has investors taking a new look at Danone, which just a year ago issued a profit warning amid European woes. The stock is on track for its best annual performance since 2006, and it trades at a premium to larger rivals Unilever and Nestle SA, whose sales growth it outpaced in the first half.

Dark Chocolate

Danone shares slipped 1.9 percent to 57.41 euros in Paris today. The stock has risen 15 percent this year, valuing the company at 36.2 billion euros ($48.5 billion).

"What has happened in the U.S. is an indication of Danone’s perseverance," said Jon Cox, head of European consumer equities at Kepler Cheuvreux in Zurich, who rates the shares buy. After missing the beginning of the Greek yogurt trend, "they’ve shown that when they see the problem, they move very quickly."

Danone’s troubles started in 2007 when Chobani mixed fruit and other goodies into Greek yogurt. It has since won over customers by offering flavors like coffee with dark chocolate and fig with orange zest. Greek yogurt’s high protein content makes it more filling and it contains little or no fat -- though it can cost about twice what regular yogurt does.

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