Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Trend?

At the beginning of the year I made several trend predictions and promised updates.  I already have an update and not a happy one from a "pure foods" perspective.

Stonyfield's recent decision to discontinue its iconic line of Cream Top Yogurt flags the hard facts of life for brands and groceries trying to determine whether we really want good food or just good-sounding food.  While my prediction that groceries will be offering more artisanal foods holds, old standbys are at risk of leaving us including Stonyfield's very first product, Cream Top yogurt.

Their iconic yogurt with cream on top and lower fat, real yogurt below has been replaced by a "creamier" homogenized version that they call "stirred in," not wanting to stir up alarm with the word homogenized.

While I have no personal complaint against homogenization, it is a problem for many lactose-sensitive eaters who can digest non-homogenized dairy more easily. For myself and my family, I am sad to see a great example of pure foods that was so delicious leave store shelves in favor of a new yogurt blend that tastes much like every other one in the dairy case.  To stay current with America's taste for a creamier mouth-feel in many ready-to-eat foods,  Stonyfield felt they needed to change their base brand to improve sales.

After a week of complaints, Stonyfield posted an open letter on facebook under a newly created tab, Cream Top.  It reads in part," ... we owe our success to loyal fans...." then goes on to discuss the marketing decision to look away from those early days of sales support and discontinue the Cream Top line.  It also asks for feedback to help them monitor their decision.  (See full letter here.  Also see Stonyfield's wall under Stonyfield + others for consumer comments on the issue.)
 
 One commenter, to whom I am related (full disclosure),  notes:

Stonyfield is a for-profit company and that means is it market driven. When a product line trends lower in sales it is discontinued in favor of other products that will provide higher profits. It is not important to Stonyfield that the Cream Top Yogurt line is as quintessential as all the "organic" efforts they... hold so dear, for now. 

 It is arguable that all those efforts actually made the "COT" product line more susceptible to discontinuance due to their higher costs, and thus, lower profit margins. So, yes organics are great by themselves but they make companies have to be stricter on the shelves. Since American tastes are trending towards sweeter, already flavored, homogenized, thicker, individually packaged pablum that is exactly what you will see from Stonyfield. Heck, it probably won't be long before they put out a French-Fried flavored, thicker, creamier yogurt-like substance that you eat out of a bag! Don't get any ideas Stonyfield :-)   

The way I read the official "dear John" letter from Eric is: Thanks for starting and keeping our business going in hard times, but you are not numerous enough now to take up our shelf space so your services are no longer needed.

Stonyfield, I posit: There is nothing more "Organic" than a 32 oz container of plain, non-Homogenized yogurt that the consumer can flavor or sweeten or bake or mix to taste.

Smaller producers may fill gaps left by larger ones.  In fact, I have been hearing from readers confirming the increasing availability of organic and artisinal food of all kinds, including dairy.  One group in Vermont, Graze (www.grazedelivered.com), has used its market knowledge to create a New England-wide delivery system of organic and artisinal meat, dairy, baked goods and vegetables and will even deliver cooked meals to your ski house on weekends and holidays.  It's a great opportunity for local farmers but leaves me wondering if this food trend is, as often suspected, limited to those of higher means.  

When large suppliers like Stonyfield are moved by consumer demand for creamier, thicker, cheaper to produce yogurt and abandon widely available pure products, we have only ourselves to blame. Stonyfield has to listen to sales to survive and grow.  What will Stonyfield and other brands conclude from our marketplace actions next?