Kids get in on marketing: Stonyfield heads back to school

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A small, crunchy company is taking mega-marketers to school-literally-in the healthy-snack business.

In the year since organic yogurt marketer Stonyfield Farm introduced a handful of healthy vending machines in schools, it has garnered more than 20 million media impressions for the effort and, maybe coincidentally, bested behemoth Kraft Foods' rival yogurt, Breyers.

While nearly every top food and beverage manufacturer from Nestle to PepsiCo is looking for ways to cater to schools' increasing demands for more nutritious offerings, it is Stonyfield that has created the biggest buzz. Stonyfield's president and "CE-Yo" Gary Hirshberg has been trotted out on the pages of The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report as a leader in the fight against childhood obesity.

But maybe more importantly, Stonyfield-a small player with sales of not quite $150 million, but majority-owned by giant Groupe Danone-has worked directly with the next generation of snackers to build its business, one school at a time. Last year, Stonyfield introduced 15 healthy vending machines, featuring such items as its own Stonyfield Smoothies, Stretch Island fruit leathers and Stacy's pita chips, into schools in Rhode Island, California and Massachusetts; this fall it will add 15 in Connecticut, New York and Maryland.

As it introduces the machines, Stonyfield has conducted taste tests of products among middle-school and high-school students, so they can choose what they like best. It offers $200 in marketing money for student groups to tout the machines in school their own way. Last year, student teams developed a movie about healthy eating, a poster campaign and a "car-hop" program, where kids went table to table offering samples and information.

"This is the time kids are forming impressions about what they like or don't like," said Cathleen Toomey, VP-communications for Stonyfield.

Erik Peterson, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association said, "where Stonyfield is innovative is that they've definitely been successful about getting a lot of publicity for what they're doing."

Stonyfield spent $7.8 million in measured media last year, per TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. The company has retained Connelly Partners, Boston, but is in the midst of a search for a new ad agency.

Stonyfield sales grew 12% to $133 million for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 8, according to Information Resources Inc.

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