How Activia went from heavy digestive aid to trendy wellness brand

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Danone launched Activia, the probiotic yogurt that claims to support gut health, in the United States in 2006. Curtis became the brand’s spokesperson the following year. The ad campaign – touting Activia’s role in keeping consumers “regular” – inspired some ridicule, but it also boosted sales.

The brand has since left Curtis, bringing in other spokespeople over the years and changing the way it promotes its products.

Today, Activia’s marketing campaigns are a far cry from what they were ten years ago. A combination of new advertising and ever-changing consumer trends helped Activia shed its image as a falsifiable digestive aid and into the buzzy realm of wellness and gut health.

So far, it looks like the strategy is working. The brand’s sales in the United States increased from $472 million in 2019 to $506 million in 2021, according to the company. Activia could surpass Light + Fit to become Danone’s top yogurt brand in the United States this year.

But Activia has to be careful not to drive away longtime customers who bought the product for the first time because they were linked to Curtis and his digestive troubles.

“It’s a very tricky decision,” said Pedro Silveira, president of Danone North America yogurt. “We don’t want to alienate [our core customers]”, he said. “But at the same time, we have to recruit new ones.”

Activia is coming

When Danone first introduced Activia in the United States, it needed to sell consumers on the concept of a probiotic yogurt. Probiotics are living organisms, including bacteria and yeast, that are found in yogurt and other products. Experts say consuming probiotics may help with digestion or other issues, but some studies have shown that there isn’t much evidence to suggest probiotics do as much for the average consumer.

“Not all probiotics are created equal,” said Miguel Freitas, vice president of health and scientific affairs at Danone. “Experts have suggested that most probiotics have strain-specific mechanisms of action that are linked to different benefits.”

On its website, Activia states that its yogurt “may help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomforts”, such as “bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort and rumbling”, when consumed twice a day for a few weeks and associated to a healthy lifestyle. and a balanced diet.

With Curtis as their spokesperson, Danone distilled this information into a simple message: if you want to keep your bowel movements on track, eat Activia. In the commercials, Curtis explained that eating Activia helped him stay regular. Sometimes she was joined by other women who also complained of digestive problems.

No one spoke frankly about the saddles, but the implication was clear.

The ads, unsurprisingly, were pulled for parody. Saturday Night Live aired a skit in 2008 in which Kristen Wiig, playing Curtis, repeatedly puts Activia in her mouth and—spoiler alert—soils her pants while filming a commercial. It’s not the most sophisticated humor, but apparently it resonated — the following year, Wiig reprized the role in an even more scatological sequel.
Kristen Wiig as Jamie Lee Curtis in a 2008 SNL skit mocking Activia.

It may seem that this was all a big flop. But in fact, sales were skyrocketing. “At this particular moment, this campaign has been very successful,” Silveira said.

The brand experienced “a huge period of growth when [Curtis] was our brand ambassador,” Jeffrey Rothman, then the company’s vice president of marketing, told The New York Times in 2014.
But it wasn’t all easy – in 2010, the company, then known as Dannon, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission misleading advertising charges. The FTC alleged that advertisements stating that a single daily serving of Activia provides relief for irregularities were misleading.
“Dannon has agreed to convey more clearly that the beneficial effects of Activia on irregularities and transit time are confirmed on three servings per day,” the company said in a statement at the time, according to a 2010 report from the New York Times. “The essence of Dannon’s advertising remains unchanged and will continue to be truthful and in compliance with all laws and regulations,” the company added.

Danone doesn’t see parodies of its campaign as a bad thing, Silveira said, noting that it’s possible to “benefit” from such attention and use it to “start a positive conversation.”

Containers of Dannon Activia yogurt are seen on a supermarket shelf in 2009.
Even so, Danone has begun to move away from this type of messaging. Curtis worked with the brand until 2013. The following year, Activia announced a slate of new spokespersons, including Reba McEntire and Laila Ali. Instead of emphasizing regularity, new campaigns associate eating Activia with having a “happy belly”. That year, the brand also featured pop sensation Shakira in an advertisement.
In July 2020, Activia launched a new marketing initiative focused on the most hyped and less specific concepts in gut health and wellness.
“Our goal is to connect with younger audiences and show how the gut is the starting point for so much about how we feel,” said Sonika Patel, vice president of marketing for Danone Americas. du Nord, in a statement at the time. “Bright, fun and musical, our new direction draws attention to the part of your daily life that is affected by your gut.”
The “A to Z” commercial features an acrostic song and a varied list of non-celebrities working out, dancing, kissing and, of course, eating yogurt.

A few years ago, “we saw an opportunity to rejuvenate the brand,” Silveira said, describing it as an evolution rather than a rejection of the original Curtis campaign concept. Danone has been testing the new ads to make sure they don’t alienate consumers, Silveira added. The brand now refers to the updated campaign as a growth driver.

“You’re marketing what people want to be, not necessarily who they are,” said Bob Samples, executive-in-residence at Western Michigan University, where he teaches food and consumer goods marketing students. The lifestyle in the ads might seem ambitious for older consumers, he said. “If I market this to millennials, I’m probably catching the baby boomers.”

The quest for gut health

As Danone expanded its marketing campaigns, more and more consumers began to seek out probiotics and search for so-called gut health.

In a 2021 report, research firm Mintel said that when asked what benefit would encourage them to try more yogurt, around 34% of respondents highlighted gut health.

Interest in probiotics really kicked off during the pandemic, said Claire Lancaster, senior food and beverage team strategist at WGSN, a trend forecasting firm.

“We’ve seen huge spikes in conversation around [gut health] at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “It has grown since then.”

Activia's drinkable versions are designed for the on-the-go yogurt consumer.

Online, young consumers are “calling [probiotic] strains that they like to take,” Lancaster noted. “It’s become quite trendy to be hyper aware.”

Samples suggest that younger consumers see probiotics as some sort of recovery aid, although that may not be the case. “The mentality of a lot of young people is that if I eat enough yogurt, I can have a bunch of fries,” Samples said.

Additionally, yogurt sales have increased in general, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Retail yogurt sales in the United States have grown from $9 billion in 2019 to $9.3 billion in 2021, according to research firm Euromonitor.

Activia also takes other approaches to attract consumers. An example: the drinkable versions of Activia, sold in bottles, which let consumers drink the product on the move. In its report, Mintel said “the yogurt drink segment will fuel post-pandemic growth.”

Between new ads, new varieties and the gut health trend, Activia is now very different for today’s customers. Silveira believes that young Activia consumers “have not been exposed to the Jamie Lee Curtis campaign” and will not associate the messages in its advertisements with the product.

Samples agreed that consumers generally have a short memory for things like marketing, but said they would remember some things.

“I think everyone will remember Jamie directing the ads, but probably not what the message was…other than a lot of people laughed at it [for being] the yogurt that made you poop.”

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