Is White Milk Bleeding Out?

Jeff Manning

Without Coffee Drinks, Adult Consumption Could Be Near Zero

The long-term, dramatic decline in white milk per capita consumption is well documented. But the implications for dairy families are enormous and, in my opinion, irreversible.  And the hemorrhaging is not just the result of competitive beverages, non-dairy “milks” and the fact that Lactose Intolerance is the disease de jour. There are other factors that make even slowing the decline in per capita immensely complicated and challenging.

  • Yogurt is displacing milk. This dairy tradeoff is taking place throughout the day, at virtually every meal and snack occasion. Unflavored yogurt is healthy, convenient, has a long shelf life and carries a huge range of flavors and textures from cereals to fruit. Flavored yogurt comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes, an endless variety of flavors (most recently savory) and many price points. It is available in every grocery format and almost all quick service restaurants and C-stores. It does not have any stigmas attached to it. It is eaten by everyone, from babies to boomers and from our inner cities to rural America. If all of these assets weren’t enough, yogurt is heavily branded and supported by billions of dollars of marketing and promotion support. It has, I believe, displaced milk as “the perfect food.”
  • Retailers and foodservice operators are not “loyal” to milk. There is no longer a “dairy case”. Retailers will sell whatever products have the highest turns and margins. Witness the shelf space that plant based “milks” have stolen from white milk. The same is beginning to happen as plant-based foods enter the yogurt and ice cream sections. But perhaps the most dramatic example of this void in loyalty is in the meat category. Plant based “meats” like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are being given significant shelf space in national grocery chains and, perhaps more strikingly, on fast food menus.
  • Children are making the beverage decision at an earlier and earlier age and they are not choosing milk.
    Gone are the days when parents could mandate a glass of milk because it was “good for you”. Today’s kids are given the liberty to choose from a seemingly endless array of beverages in countless flavors, many without calories and in single serve packages. Complicating this issue is that there is little evidence that nutrition education leads to positive behavior change. It is my understanding that a large proportion (50%+) of school milk goes on the tray but ends up in trash. (Of course, serving it at near room temperature and in cartons that don’t open from either side doesn’t help.) I would propose that flavor and branded beverage marketing is far more powerful than a lecture on Calcium by a parent or educator.
  • Unlike any other beverage, white milk is “trapped” by its close association with children and its strong links to highly sugared foods. Unless it is called a latte or mocha or Frappuccino, white milk out of a glass is not an adult drink. One could make a strong argument that without coffee drink and cereal usage, adult per capita could be very close to zero. The association with cake and cookies and sugared cereal is now an anchor on milk. In one of nutrition’s great ironies, we are obsessed with cutting calories at the same time obesity is afflicting tens of millions of Americans, including a growing number of children.

So, the future for white milk in this country seems bleak. However, the dairy industry could take action that would significantly slow the consumption decline of white milk and perhaps and thereby increase returns to dairy families and processors. At the risk of stepping on political landmines, below are the steps we could explore.

  • Recognize that the future of white milk is as an ingredient. Milk can be the foundation of a wide range of heavily branded, added-value products. This Ingredient Strategy holds huge potential, witness milk in cereal bowls and coffee drinks. But, in order to gain the benefits of this strategic shift, we must be willing to let go of our deep attachment to white-out-of-the-glass consumption.
  • Consolidate federal and state dairy marketing programs behind one milk strategy. The last time the milk industry let down its political shields and backed one positioning was in the mid-1990s. Well over $200 million (in unadjusted dollars) was spent behind “milk deprivation” and Got Milk? This collaboration of producers and processors was deeply pervasive, from network and local TV to mud flaps on dairy tankers and delivery trucks. The internet now offers the dairy industry many more cost efficient and effective marketing tools.
  • Make added value, product and packaging innovation the top priority. Move white milk as far from being a commodity as possible. Work closely with consumer-packaged goods companies (General Mills, Nestle) and quick-service restaurant chains to conceive, test and market new, exciting milk-based drinks. Related to this…
  • Resurrect the milk-based concepts developed for the California Milk Advisory Board. Fourteen (14) milk-based concepts, all with national and global brands, were developed, tested and expressed in perceptual maps. The results were very encouraging and presented in person to the largest food companies in America. For example, among adults 35-55 (an exceptionally tough audience), “Interest in Trying” was 60% for a branded milk enhancer, 55% for a branded probiotic milk and 45% for a branded cereal milk.

If white milk is bleeding out, it is critical that we act astutely, strategically and collaboratively. And act now.

Jeff Manning is the principal of Got Manning?, a food marketing consultancy. He was the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board for its first 11 years and developed the iconic “Got Milk” campaign. Jeff has worked on numerous CPG brands and a wide range of food commodities including beef, potatoes, eggs and raisins. Prior to consulting, he was the CMO of the Cherry Marketing Industry. Jeff is codependent with his cell phone: 510-914-7061 and his web site is


  1. Lets face it, plain old 2% and 1% are tasteless and boring. Full fat which is supposedly standardized at 3.5% is much more flavorful. The other side is that the new pasturization processes which emphasize speed over quality also does nothing for flavor, which is why some people venture over to the unpasturized raw milk. That is another disaster that is waiting to happen. The “got milk” campaign was and still could be a very good promotion tool. Just some random thoughts from between plowing the driveway.

  2. Jeff hits the nail on the head, we are too invested in an industry on basic jug milk as a commodity. Move to value added strategies that may force us to abandon the basic “pooled milk” structure of milk cooperatives and milk pricing.

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