Good food has great power, says Chobani CCO Leland Maschmeyer, who has spearheaded a romantic and folksy (and very creative) new aesthetic for the yoghurt brand
All brand categories come laden with their own baggage, weighed down by tropes and clichés that have built up and dug in over the years. Yoghurt is particularly afflicted – overexposed footage of youngish women getting far more pleasure from a tub than is decent pre-watershed. Not Chobani, though. The US brand has always followed its own path, both in terms of its business decisions (in 2016, it announced that 10% of its shares would go to its employees) and creatively.
Two years ago it hired Leland Maschmeyer, a design talent whose idiosyncratic vision and commitment to creativity that defies historic norms chimed with the Chobani leadership. Since then he’s been helping to redefine the brand and tease out its rootsy, earthy and unashamedly magical personality. A far cry from sterile minimalism, this brand identity is hearty and adventurous with a warm and almost tactile aesthetic. That philosophy makes its way into the brand’s advertising campaigns – most recently the ‘Flipland’ and ‘Go with Chobani’.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Leland to find out more.
LBB> You’ve been with Chobani for nearly two years – I understand that your brief was “Help us transform Chobani into a modern food company. And make everything beautiful.” That’s quite some remit! What were your initial steps in this transformation?
LM> Chobani has always valued creativity. You can see its history of carefully crafted products and innovative marketing efforts. But building a formal creative capability required more than hiring creative people. I first had to understand Chobani’s business model – to figure out its ‘flywheel’. That gave me clarity of where the brand could go, what kind of creative capability the business needed, and in what order to build its components. I then threw myself into recruiting the best talent in the world, without compromise.
LBB> Yoghurt is one of those products renowned forterrible advertising clichés, mainly involving women who really, really love yoghurt, and also slightly sterile brand identities - did that present a big challenge in terms of getting people to let go of traditions or was it relatively easy to get the wider company to buy into your new approach?
LM> Chobani has never been afraid to challenge norms. We know who we are. We know what we do. We know where we want to go. My role has been to translate that conviction into the most powerful expressions possible – stuff that resonates with our Chobani family and fascinates the public. The challenge in creating the work was never "Should we be breaking category conventions?” It was always, “Is this the best possible expression?” I loved that everyone in the company – across all departments – was passionate about making the work the best and most authentic it could be.
LBB> I’ve read that part of the company’s decision to change their look and communications approach was driven by a desire to be not simply a yoghurt producer but a ‘wellness company’. What’s interesting is that while the obvious places to go with wellness are either the sterile faux medical approach or the minimalist faux-zen/vaguely Eastern route… how did you go about figuring out what the Chobani idea of wellness looked and felt like?
LM> This is a great question. Certainly, wellness has those visual approaches. I’d also argue that the farm-to-table aesthetic is a third visual convention. However, these aesthetics don’t match the narrative driving the biggest wellness movement right now: the Food Movement. This cultural movement believes food can improve a long list of things, such as bodies (natural food), relationships (social eating), communities (local food), and the environment (sustainably grown food). Their narrative arc is that food is transformative. In other words, good food has great power.
What fascinates me about this perspective is that it taps into some of the oldest narrative ideas cultures have about food. Aztec warriors drank chocolate prior to battle believing it gave them super strength. The Greeks ate almonds believing they brought good fortune. Even today, our pop and food cultures are filled with "food as magic” narratives: Popeye eating spinach, eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day to bring good luck in the new year, Mario eating a mushroom, "soul food", aphrodisiacs, “liquid courage”, “power smoothies”, “energy drinks”, “brain food.” “Food as magic” is a folksy way of talking about food’s benefits to the mind, body, soul, and society. It’s also a more fun frame for a wellness story than other routes that would feel clinical or vaguely spiritual. Therefore, our new look and feel is driven to feel magical, romantic, folksy, natural. In fact, the driving idea behind the rebrand was “For Happiness Ever After”.
LBB>You’ve totally overhauled the Chobani visual identity, creating something that’s a lot friendlier, softer. It’s something I know you’ve spoken about extensively, so I don’t want to get you to retread too much old ground! But it looks like you’ve built not just a visual identity but a really strong foundation for the brand in all its iteration. When it comes to translating that to its advertising, what are the key principles? And how do you translate those brand parameters and principles in a way that doesn’t stifle creativity?
LM> E.E. Cummings adopted the mathematical concept of a “transitive relationship” to create the cousin concept of “transitive value”. A transitive value is the idea that a singular concept can lead to infinite articulations that feel different but united. For instance, “minimalist” can be used as a transitive value. It can be expressed as a Donald Judd sculpture, Dieter Ram’s Braun radio, and a glass of milk. While wildly different things, each shares a minimalist character. This is the approach our team adheres to in keeping the Chobani brand fresh. We vetted a short list of the transitive values that must be in all work we do. When combined, they represent our authentic worldview. Those values are magical, natural, romantic, handcrafted, bold. These are present, with varying degrees of emphasis, in the identity system of our “Flipland”, and “Go with Chobani” work.
LBB> You previously worked at the agency you co-founded – how have you found working in house? How has it changed the kind of conversations you’re able to have?
LM> Agency side and brand side are each fun, but for different reasons. The stuff I love most about the brand side is the opportunity to own and shape the total customer experience. I love the close, creative partnership with Peter McGuinness (Chief Marketing Officer) and Hamdi Ulukaya (Founder and CEO). We kick around ideas as if we are a creative team assigned a project brief. I love the constant variety of work: my teams are tackling national advertising, shopper marketing, packaging design, experiential, events, wayfinding, cafe design, fashion design, digital design, digital product innovation, media strategy & planning, reinventing CRM, martech implementation…the list is long.
LBB> It’s interesting to compare the campaigns for Flipland and Go with Chobani – they’re obviously distinct and aimed at different demographics but are still part of that Chobani design universe. What sort of challenges or questions do you have to address in order to strike that balance between communicating clearly distinct products with their own strategic challenges and communicating a cohesive overall brand?
LM> Great question. Second only to our incredible food, our brand is our greatest demand- generating asset. Under Peter and Hamdi’s leadership, the brand has come to stand for higher order values and purpose. It’s why there is so much enthusiasm for our company and products. As you noted, a big challenge is maintaining a compelling focus on the master brand while growing through diverse products, values propositions, and audiences. Conceptually, the products and their propositions must be manifestations of the master brand’s higher order idea. All our products are. The challenge hides in how the transitive values I mentioned earlier should be narratively and visually expressed in particular to be unique to a platform, distinct from other platforms, and reinforcing of the master brand.
Pulling off that hat trick is hard. Luckily, the team that has joined me in this are savants at cracking that nut. Flip is a creative, all-natural, happiness-inducing product. Therefore, Flipland leans harder into our transitive values of “magical”, “bold”, and “romantic”. Our drinkable yogurt is a product of simplicity and purity. Therefore “Go with Chobani” leans harder into the values of “natural” and “romance”.
LBB> Flipland pays homage to the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland – a rather deft move that allows the campaign to evoke product details/benefits (the ‘flip’) while being kind of magical and whimsical and imaginative. How did you get to this Flipland idea?
LM> We always aim to root our work in a cultural truth. In this case, it’s something we’re all told as kids: “Don’t play with your food.” The idea behind Flip is the opposite: you should play with this food. I also believe in the principle of “be very”. In other words, if you are going to stand for “play with food,” then go to the furthest extreme of the idea to dramatise it. It may get weird, but it’ll definitely be interesting. That’s what led to 'Flipland'.
LBB> Go with Chobani, meanwhile, deals with, let’s say a different kind of ‘wonder’. What was the strategic insight behind this theme of adventure and wonder?
LM> Drinkable yogurt is still a new idea to Americans. Therefore, we simply had to communicate that our yogurt can go wherever you do. Because “portability” is an easy-to-grasp, visual message, our creative concept leaned into “…wherever you go”. We wanted the spots to feel cinematic and, as you said, filled with wonder – something that felt like a Spielberg-meets-Terrence Malick film.
LBB> I LOVE the grade and the cinematography of the Go with Chobani films – who did you work with on this aspect of the campaign and what were your frames of reference/inspiration for it?
LM> Thank you! We are proud of those films and thankful we had an all-star team throw their passion and talents into it. Credit goes to Tuomo Virtanen (Cinematographer), Dennis Beier (Producer), and Mark Gethin (colourist at MPC). Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Jeff Nichols’ Mud were big inspirations, as were various photographer references.
LBB> Who directed both campaigns? And when you’re looking for people to help craft a campaign (directors etc), what do you look for?
LM> Vesa Manninen directed “Go with Chobani”. Dante Ariola directed “Flipland”. We wanted to work with Vesa and Dante because they are master craftsmen who could meet (and exceed) the high bar our team sets for craft. They each had an expert sensibility of how to marry the familiar with the fantastical to create something magical.
LBB> Both campaigns have very evocative music… I guess when talking about brand and identity it’s easy to focus entirely on the visual and forget about the importance of sound. How did you figure out what Chobani might sound like? And what were you trying to capture in the sound/music for these specific campaigns?
LM> All music was custom made with Mutemath; the lyrics were written in-house, by my team. That said, each campaign took a different approach to music. “Flipland” is Disney-esque – meaning, everything is dialled up: the movements of the actors, the richness of colours, the abundance of props, etc. So we made the music very present in all the spots. This is a common choice in Disney films because the music is as important as the story; it tells you what you should feel. This keeps the Disney storylines fun and linear.
“Go With Chobani” was the opposite. They’re minimalist films – in scenes, exposition, actors, and dialogue. Our intent was to set a mood, suggest a story structure with scene and propping, and let the strength and subtly of the acting propel the story. Therefore, the music had to service the actor’s performance. Sometimes it sat underneath to underscore the performance, as with “Open Air”. Sometimes it sat on top of the performance as a piece of exposition, as with “Master of the Universe” and “Farmer”. Our hope was that each “Go with Chobani” spot and its music felt like a clip out of a feature-length movie.