British shoppers could be forgiven for thinking milk all tastes the same. Differences between full-fat, semi-skimmed and skimmed aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a supermarket pint that tingles the tastebuds in an unusual or surprising way. That’s because the industry has worked hard over the years to standardise production, delivering consistency for the consumer and maximising profitability down the supply chain. Now, though, some brands and suppliers are looking for ways to de-commodify dairy. And experiential marketing agency Sense London has come up with just the way to do it. Craft milk.
“People think milk is a commodity because it ‘all tastes the same’, but that’s only because the industry has standardised its product,” says Vaughan Edmonds, planner at Sense. “Once you start experimenting with the breed of cow, their diet, the terrain, and the climate, milk has just as much subtlety as a fine wine.”
Milk isn’t the only sector where commoditisation has caused problems for brands in the past. “Until recently the beer market was dominated by brands for whom it was demonstrated that consumers couldn’t tell the difference in a blind taste test. It all came down to whose packaging you liked the most,” Edmonds adds.
“But then the craft brewers came along and everything changed. They showed that you could make two beers that didn’t taste alike, and in doing so opened up a whole new world for beer drinkers who could explore a string of new beers without ever getting bored. We want to do the same for milk.”
And just as the craft beer revolution has already seen the number of UK breweries surpass 2,000 – the highest since the 1930s, according to HMRC figures – a similar movement is emerging in dairy, with a growing number of ‘micro-parlours’ cropping up across the British countryside.
Run by entrepreneurial farmers looking to bypass the big processors and get more for their milk, these micro-dairies are experimenting with different production method and breeds, as well as investing in on-site pasteurisation to gain back control over processing and make their milk stand out from the rest.
Our craft dairy brand – How Now – would help fuel this revolution by “showcasing the strengths of different flavours” to “rekindle the lost art of milk drinking”, says Alex Smith, creative strategist at Sense.
“There are so many different types of cows, ways of keeping them and ways of treating the milk,” he adds. “But people have expectations around taste and if you are going to break that expectation you have to make a feature of it. You have to build this sub-category that runs alongside the standard category.”
With bold colours and an emphasis on humour, the How Now brand of craft milks is a big departure from the “Sound of Music” image milk traditionally conjures. “We started by developing an on-trend visual language with hand-drawn illustrations and customised type, packaged under a memorable brand name to get standout in a traditionally bland category,” says Adam Curry, creative director at Sense.
“Our goal was to emphasise the “crafted” nature of the product, partially by displaying certain artisanal cues, and partly by echoing the world of craft beer people are already familiar with. We wanted to turn the category conventions of milk (rolling fields, green on white, etc) on their head.”
These aren’t flavoured milks, Smith stresses. They are straight-up milks whose subtle flavour differences are all down to what cow they came from and how they were produced. So each of the craft milks in the How Now range – such as Happy Cow, Hairy Cow and Horny Cow – is named to reflect its origin. “It’s all a play on ‘How Now Brown Cow’,” says Sally McLaren, board director at Sense. “We wanted the names to stand out and be non-conventional, which has worked really well for the craft beer sector.”
And they won’t be sold in the supermarkets. “If you are going to de-commodify a product it helps to go into the exact opposite place where you expect to see that product,” says Smith. “Dairy and milk are very grocery-oriented products, so the opposite of that would be an out of home scenario.”
With this in mind, How Now would create its own flagship craft milk bar in London “where people can discover the method behind the milk and try the produce of the nation’s micro-parlours,” says Edmonds, who points out the bar format is “a nod to the craft beer industry” that also plays on the fact millennials aren’t big drinkers any more. “It would be similar to something like crush or smoothie bars, which have already got quite good traction in a retail environment.”
Patrons can choose to swig their milk straight up or order it alongside classic accompaniments such as cereal, porridge, cookies or pancakes. They can even add booze, with an evening cocktail menu on offer. “We originally started with cereal pairings, which seemed to make a lot of sense, but we realised the offer could be much broader than that,” says Smith. “Milk isn’t just a breakfast thing – people drink it in the evening with cookies or in a hot chocolate. And it’s also used in things like White Russians so it already has a foot in alcohol.”
In order to spread the message of its craft milk campaign more widely, How Now would also have pop-ups in the form of milk vans “located tactically to provide the ultimate chilled refreshment to the market and park-goers of the capital,” says Edmonds. Its fleet of vans could even tour music festivals, giving its target audience of trendy millennials a chance to try out the different flavours.
“Our product is very taste-led so it would lend itself well to sampling,” says Smith. “And we acknowledge that – in its early conception at least – this is a somewhat faddish, hipsterish idea. Although too many brands focus on that segment of the market and don’t pay enough attention to the mainstream, this is one idea where it would make sense. Hipsters got craft beer off the ground, so they could pull off the same trick with this.”