Planning, partnerships, plus plant-alternative blends: DMI’s fluid milk innovations seek ‘relevant’ retail growth

The new line of Dairy Plus/Milk Blends by DFA’s Live Real Farms is described this way at the website: “Something wonderful happens when you blend 50% dairy milk with 50% almond or oat drink. New Dairy+ Milk Blends. Lighter, more refreshing than regular dairy milk. Richer, creamier than plant-based drinks. Together, it’s a whole new taste experience.” In fact, the newest tagline is “The beauty is in the blend. Nutritious, creamy milk meets the reduced sugar and calories of almond or oat drink. It’s the best of all milks. The milk for modern tastes.” This DMI / DFA innovation was launched over a year ago in Minnesota and is expected to roll out in the Northeast early 2021. The sales pitch is unreal, and dairy checkoff funds helped pay for it. We don’t see that kind of packaging and promotion effort in real milk. https://liverealfarms.com/

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 19, 2020

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In addition to the ‘DMI-led’ launch of DFA’s new ‘teen milk’ called siips, DMI is also working with processors, retailers, foodservice and technology companies to develop other ‘milk innovations’ for schools, foodservice and retail.

On a recent Center for Dairy Excellence industry call, Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of global innovation partnerships described DMI’s five-year-old fluid milk revitalization committee as a collaboration between the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, MilkPEP, NMPF and IDFA, using DMI’s insights to “make milk relevant.”

In the retail sector, Ziemniskhy talked about how plant-based beverage sales grew by a large percentage since the Coronavirus pandemic, but ‘value-added’ milk sales (such as fairlife, dairy-plus-plant-blends and other milk-based beverage innovations) grew by an even larger percentage than plant-based alternatives alone.

When asked whether dairy farmers’ are paying to fund checkoff research on non-dairy alternative products, DMI president Barb O’Brien said: “We are not doing any ‘dedicated’ research on alternatives. What we are doing has been done from a new product development standpoint,” she said.

“There has been exploration of blended products as consumers look at new flavors and options,” O’Brien defended. “Instead of letting that market walk away from dairy, we have looked at blended or ‘milk-based’ opportunities. We have looked at alternative milk-and-oats, milk-and-nuts to bring flavor and excitement to those new products.”

O’Brien stressed that all of this work has had “farmer oversight.”

“I want to assure you that 85 dairy farmers from across the country sit on the DMI board for approval of our plans,” said O’Brien.

On fluid milk, for example, she said the “dedicated fluid milk committee includes 10 farmers. They were asked to go deep and monitor the specifics of the work and the investments. They see the confidential, proprietary information from investors and make recommendations to the board.”

Ziemnisky did admit that whole milk sales — on a volume basis – topped the growth volume of other beverages in the dairy case, but he and O’Brien both focused on the value-added side of the equation. They revealed how DMI’s focus is to prove to retailers that they will reap sales growth by devoting more space to dairy innovations.

“Our partners have made capital investments of over $1 billion to help us win in retail, foodservice and school channels,” said Ziemnisky, explaining that the large and expanding dairy cases at retail are now confined to a 4 x 6 phone screen because more consumers today are choosing to shop for groceries online. “We are making sure milk is front and center in their media programs. As a result, online sales of fluid milk products are up $500 million year-to-date.”

O’Brien said DMI works “to ensure we keep dairy products moving into markets.”

“Our work covers the spectrum from consumer research to retail marketing and education of dairy case managers,” she said. “When the fluid milk revitalization alliance was formed, we learned brands do a better job of advertising. We built up the category with facts that prove to retailers how the value-added section in milk is growing more than the plant-based alternatives.

“We help them see that we’re the future, that they are getting more growth from us, and we show them: here’s how to grow the category,” O’Brien explained. “Retailers are now activating and using this knowledge to build-out additional space for new milk-based product launches.”

Case in point — the Dairy Plus/Milk Blends made by DFA’s Live Real Farms — is touted as ‘a new taste experience’ (in which the first listed ingredient is lowfat milk, second ingredient is water…)

The line of 50% lowfat, lactose-free milk and 50% almond or oat drink was launched over a year ago in Minnesota and is expected to hit the Northeast in January. Ziemnisky said the milk plus oat and milk plus almond beverages are examples of ‘relevant’ innovation, based on DMI insights.

“The urban and suburban consumer today is trying to get into shape. They are making smoothies. They are flavor explorers. They are putting habanero on cheese. They don’t want basics. We have to bring on the flavor and the innovation,” he said.

“Millennial moms are leaking out of dairy in the low-fat and nutrition space,” Ziemnisky explained. “We did a test of ‘real dairy’ with new flavor blends like oat. We thought, let’s add (oat beverage) to dairy and test it. This added to the retail basket, creating new usage occasions for dairy and grew the overall dairy sales compared to the stores that did not have the new (DFA Dairy Plus/Milk Blends) product.”

Retail sales growth on a dollar basis is very much the focus as Ziemnisky and O’Brien said they are showing retailers that adding these innovations to their offerings will drive category growth and sales revenue.

“We want consumers to experiment with new flavors that are occurring,” Ziemnisky said, using cheese as an example that applies to the fluid milk sector. “Think about cheese, of adding wine and nuts to cheese. You see that massive flavor blending. On a global landscape, we see this flavor thing as an international trend.”

Ziemnisky mentioned Kroger’s new cherry milk and the new ‘cereal milk’ launched recently by Nestle. He said there are “some other things that will launch that we can’t talk about, but think of what ice cream does (with flavor). That’s a hint.”

“To keep consumers from running to plants, we have to add some plants to dairy,” said Ziemnisky, citing this as an example of innovation he said is needed to compete.

“Our piece of that investment is very small,” he added. “Our partners are drawing on our expertise and investing ten times our investment, ultimately, in packaging and marketing at the end day.”

A dairy farmer submitted a question wondering, ‘What percentage of the total DMI budget comes from farmer funds and what portion comes from corporate partners?’

O’Brien replied that, “100% of DMI’s budget comes from America’s dairy farmers.”

(Technically, that’s not entirely accurate because importers pay a 7.5-cent checkoff per hundredweight equivalent. Importers are not dairy farmers, except when the importers are farmer-owned cooperatives.)

As regards DMI’s corporate partnerships, their funds are not mixed into one budget.


“What this plan has been designed to do is to bring partners of all types — foodservice, manufacturing, foundations, government grants — to align other people’s money with and execute against the shared values and shared priorities,” said O’Brien.

She noted earlier that the shift to a partnership planning model occurred in 2008-09, at the same time that the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was formed (and a year or so after the importers were required to start paying a 7.5 cent checkoff).

“We have calculated the value of corporate dollars — what I like to call ‘other people’s money’ — to combine with our dollars to become $3 billion for the execution of ‘in market’ plans,” said O’Brien. “This takes into account partners like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and others. In marketing, they spend 10 to 20 times what we spend in the years we do that.”

O’Brien stated that this partnership plan is a “critical multiplier of farmers’ investments to make a greater impact on farmers’ behalf.”

When asked if DMI considers itself a top-down or bottom-up organization, O’Brien said the fundamental philosophy is “the most powerful partnership I have ever seen. It starts at the farmer level with national and local boards aligning behind shared values and priorities and a plan. That translates to staff sitting nationally and planning and driving strategies, building relationships and implementing the science.”

According to O’Brien, the annual planning process of DMI involves staff leadership and farmer leadership from national and local levels. It is a 9-month process that starts with the consumer insights DMI provides on how the marketplace is changing. Out of those insights, the strategies are brought forward. Then there is agreement on the strategies and tactics. Then the plans are ultimately implemented together.

“The marriage makes it a system that works for farmers,” O’Brien opined.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Without checkoff-funded promotion, regular whole milk sales grew by 14% on a volume basis year-to-date, according to USDA. Paul Ziemnisky confirmed that whole milk sales are 41% of total dairy case sales on a volume basis, so the gains continue to make whole milk the volume growth leader in the dairy case. Meanwhile DMI fluid milk revitalization is aimed at ‘relevance’ and showing retailers and other partners the sales growth (in dollars) that dairy innovation can deliver.

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