Can an NFL Ref Finally Move Activia Past the Jamie Lee Curtis Era?

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Activia and Female NFL Referee Sarah Thomas – 'It Starts Inside'
Activia and Female NFL Referee Sarah Thomas – 'It Starts Inside' Credit: Activia

Activia's advertising featuring Jamie Lee Curtis was so memorable that perhaps it was too memorable. The yogurt is still associated with the actress in some people's minds, even though she has not appeared in an Activia commercial in more than three years.

Now, the Dannon brand is relaunching itself with a renewed focus on probiotics and a campaign centered around Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL referee.

Activia is betting on the appeal of Ms. Thomas, who is shown traveling, suiting up for her job and, of course, eating Activia. The U.S. campaign began running in January and kicked into higher gear this month with Ms. Thomas making media appearances in Houston ahead of the Super Bowl. It follows the fall release of a global campaign including ballerina Ingrid Silva and sailor Dee Caffari that isn't running in the United States.

Activia is handled by WPP's Team Dannon, which includes JWT, Wunderman, Y&R and Geometry.

For Activia, returning to solid growth mode in the U.S. is critical. The U.S. is Activia's biggest market, even though the brand debuted in Europe in 1987 and did not make it to the U.S. until 2006.

"The brand did a lot for the category when it was launched," said Carolina Cespedes, senior brand director, Activia, referencing its messages about yogurt consumption and digestive health.

Over time, the very functional message ran its course. "It became related to old people, sick people and then it stagnated. It wasn't bringing the growth that we wanted and that it deserved," she said.

Activia's push comes after overall U.S. yogurt sales and the brand's own market share modestly declined in 2016, while Greek yogurt maker Chobani and some smaller players kept growing.

U.S. dollar sales of yogurt fell 1.6% to $7.49 billion in 2016 (through Dec. 25), according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Activia's market share slipped to 5.8% in 2016 from 5.9%, according to Euromonitor International. Dannon, or Groupe Danone, is still the leading company in U.S. yogurt. By brand, though, Chobani now holds the top spot, followed by Yoplait, Dannon, Fage and Activia.

Of course, Activia isn't the only brand fighting for share. General Mills just brought back Yoplait Custard, a product it said consumers were asking for, and introduced Greek 100 Protein and Yoplait Dippers to widen its appeal. The Dannon brand, meanwhile, is running a TV commercial that lets viewers text a number on the screen to have coupons sent to their phones. Plus, Chobani is not sitting still now that it has the top brand spot. It is gearing up for its first campaign with its newest creative agency, Wieden & Kennedy.

As recently as 2010, Activia's market share was 8.9%. That's the same year Dannon settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and agreed to pay $21 million to 39 states to resolve investigations over digestive health claims it made in advertising for Activia and another product.

Activia's current effort tries to connect the brand to current consumers and younger ones. For Activia, younger means "women between 30 and 40 years old that have this aspiration of being their best self," Ms. Cespedes said.

It is not the first time Activia has tried to push America past the era of Ms. Curtis, which began in 2008. In 2014, the brand ran its "Activia Tummies. Happy People" campaign with a trio of celebrities: singer and actress Reba McEntire, celebrity health expert Travis Stork, and Laila Ali, a retired boxer and daughter of Muhammad Ali. It followed up with a global campaign focused on singer Shakira.

The 2014 push "stabilized the brand but it was not making it grow," Ms. Cespedes said.

The American Activia consumer, she asserts, is quite interested in the probiotics trend. "In the minds of consumers, Activia equal probiotics," Ms. Cespedes said. Therefore, the U.S. push includes calling out the probiotics, particularly in shopper marketing and search, as well as on updated packaging.

"The 'It Starts Inside' campaign is the start of a new chapter in Activia advertising, taking it beyond function claims to a more emotional space," Mark Roalfe, chief creative officer on WPP's Team Dannon, said in a statement.

Broadly, the brand is positioning itself as a product that enables a woman to be her best self. It is now trying to use local ways of telling the story in various markets, after realizing that the single message in the global campaign outside the U.S. did not resonate everywhere.

"The 'It Starts Inside' campaign idea is something that we developed especially for the U.S., but now other parts of Activia in other countries are looking at to evolve their communication," Ms. Cespedes said.

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