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How marketing got Californians buying milk again

It’s California, in 1993, and milk sales had experienced a 40-year decline. The issue was hurting Californian dairy sellers’ and farmers’ back pockets. Something had to be done.

Greg Devine


Milk concept on a blue background

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For many years prior, dairy organisations had spent money on advertising, in a bid to change people’s perception of milk, yet sales had continued to fall.

Stemming from WWII, the economic boom of the 1940s and 50s saw more and more people eating out. Coffee, tea and soda became all the rage and, in truth, presented a more exciting alternative to milk, water and juice.

The National Dairy Board and the California Milk Advisory Board spent around $13M a year advertising dairy products. It didn’t help that their rivals were well-funded. They simply couldn’t match the market share Pepsi and Coca-Cola held. The financial resources and brilliant marketing teams behind these companies meant milk didn’t stand a chance.

The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) logo

In response, the California Department of Food and Agriculture formed a new organisation: The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB). It was given a war chest of $23M with one simple objective—to advertise on behalf of the dairy industry and increase sales of milk.

After years of poor sales, in 1993, the mission began. The CMPB hired advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners (GS&P) who took the $23M and created a state-wide marketing campaign. The budget allowed GS&P to carry out extensive marketing research, which they hoped would pinpoint the root cause of the 40-year fall in sales. What they found was this: 88% of milk was being consumed at home. That wasn’t really a surprise, considering most people had their breakfast and cups of coffee, rather than a soda, first thing in the morning, before leaving for work/school/wherever. Their study showed that 70% of Californians were already drinking milk on a frequent basis. The results gave both the CMPB and the GS&P a headache…if that was the case, why had sales been declining for so long?

The picture became clearer: milk was predominantly being used as a complement to foods like cereal, but it was never the main focus.

GS&P came to the realisation that if milk was typically consumed alongside something else, the only time people would really think about milk was if they ran out of it. Previous marketing campaigns had been using the wrong approach; they’d tried to convince non-drinkers of milk to buy it for the benefit of strong bones, when they actually needed to convince current milk drinkers to consume more.

got milk?

And so, perhaps one of the most successful ad campaigns of the previous century began. The ‘Got milk?’ campaign debuted in October 1993. The advert proved a success on TV, so the CMPB took the ‘Got milk?’ campaign even further via print, radio and billboard adverts across California.

The adverts all followed the same basic premise. They showed people eating cookies, brownies and peanut butter jelly sandwiches, only to realise they’d run out of milk. By focusing on the nightmare that running out of milk can cause, they created a ritual around the purchasing and consumption of milk.

Just a year after launching the campaign, milk sales had increased by 7%. Don’t forget—this was the first time in four decades the market had seen any rise in sales. The campaign was so effective that it was expanded nationwide with an $80M annual budget.

In just a few years, with this $80M, the CMPB was able to achieve the same level of brand recognition that Coca-Cola or Pepsi had needed $300M-$500M to achieve. In 2003, a US Newswire study found that 9 out of 10 Americans could identify the catchphrase ‘Got milk?’. It was even referenced in Friends.

Thank you to Daniel Murray for the idea for this article and the relevant sources, which came from his Twitter thread. His Twitter handle is @Dmurr68

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