The first known reference to yogurt was made by Pliny the Elder, who noted that "barbarous nations" ate a sort of thickened milk with an acidic, but agreeable, taste.
That's about how things stood for 2,000 years or so. There were people who ate yogurt, and there were people who thought people who ate yogurt were barbarians.
No place was that more true than in the United States — at least until early in the 1900s, when yogurt became popular among a certain sort of health nut. Corn Flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, for example, used yogurt — in enemas.
But while the enema craze never really caught on, the idea of eating yogurt sort of did. In New England, you could buy Colombo Yogurt for most of the 1900s. It was popular with many European immigrants. And by the late 1960s, it was popular with hippies, too.
Then, in 1977, French-owned Dannon yogurt ran a television ad that mesmerized Americans. The ad was filmed in the Soviet Union — a place that seemed unimaginably strange and dangerous to Americans. And it featured people who lived to be 100 years old.
Those folks, the ad told us, ate yogurt. And soon we did, too.
One of the strange things we know today about that ad is that it featured people whose idea of yogurt was wildly different from what Americans were coming to understand was yogurt. In America, we were eating a thin, liquid-like yogurt, usually mixed with fruit; whereas those ancient folks in Soviet Georgia were eating something called matsoni — a thick, fermented yogurt-like product.
Now, the Soviet Union is no more, and Americans have seemingly changed their preferences in yogurt. Thick yogurt is in. Few foods have become as wildly popular as quickly as Greek style yogurt has in the past few years. The earliest players in the space — Fage, Chobani, etc. — now face increasing competition from other upstarts and from some of the major food manufacturers.
The yogurt wars are here, and the stakes are high: Greek yogurt is said to be a $6 billion industry.
Here's a quick look at the three major fronts in that war:
Chobani is the biggest name in Greek yogurt, despite a series of well-publicized problems and the loss of its distribution deal with Whole Foods. Dannon, playing the unfamiliar role of underdog, has been waiting for Chobani to stumble before attacking.
That attack, and Chobani's counterattack, will both come next Sunday.
Both Chobani and Dannon Oikos are running commercials during the Super Bowl, spending an obscene amount of money in the process. In addition, General Mills' late-to-the-party Yoplait Greek brand has launched an ad campaign in which it challenges Chobani to a taste test.
Look for these ad campaigns, and those of other brands, everywhere, as the ad battle heats up.
Before the Greek craze, yogurt was a product with a distinctly feminine following. Lots of guys ate the stuff — probiotics are good for everyone — but yogurt marketing was clearly aimed at reaching women consumers.
Greek has changed that, although we have no idea why.
Certainly, there's nothing particularly masculine about Greek yogurt. But the food industry has decided that Greek is the way to win men over to yogurt.
First, there's Powerful Yogurt — which, based on a look through its website, seems to be aimed at guys who shave their body hair and think a lot about other guys who shave their body hair.
There is also Dannon for Men, available in Europe and expected to debut soon in the States. Dannon for Men's chief selling point is that it comes in a cool-looking black cup. The reason for this, apparently, is that the "masculine need for clear structures" requires the use of a cool-looking black cup.
As far as we can see, the only "need" being addressed here is the one to segment the market.
Look for more of this. If yogurt for people too active to use both hands is already here, the industry is clearly turning toward smaller markets.
The third-largest brand of yogurt in Europe is Ehrmann. And just a few months ago, Ehrmann opened a massive new plant in Arizona, marking the company's first foray into the U.S.
Surprising absolutely no one, Ehrmann has decided it, too, can get a piece of the American market for Greek yogurt.
It's U.S. brand is called Mixim. It's fat-free, comes in a pink, heart-shaped box, and will launch a major marketing campaign to coincide with Valentine's Day.
We expect Ehrmann won't be the last new fighter on the battlefield.
Rather, we'll be surprised if Japan's Yakult, a drinkable yogurt already available in Asian ethnic markets here, doesn't make a major play for the U.S. soon. Can Yakult make a Greek yogurt? We have no idea. But we do know that Americans would love a yogurt with its own professional baseball team. Go Swallows!