Insights & Expertise

Lessons From the Milk Industry on the Type of Language that Increases Sales

Shoppers are inundated with choices at the grocery store, but what ultimately causes them to make a purchase? Professor of Food Marketing John Stanton, Ph.D., and alumna Ekaterina Salnikova, Ph.D., ’14 (M.S.) conducted a study to determine what language causes milk drinkers to put cartons in carts. Their findings were published in the British Food Journal.

Older male examining a carton of milk at the grocery store

"The single biggest item on a milk label is the word ‘milk,'" says Food Marketing Professor John Stanton, Ph.D. "They really failed to use this label to describe the various benefits and attributes of milk."

by Diane Holliday

Reduced fat, pasteurized, no preservatives, all natural. Consumers are faced with countless food descriptors as they peruse the grocery store aisles, but which characteristics cause them to purchase and which cause them to pass? That’s exactly what Professor of Food Marketing John Stanton, Ph.D., and alumna Ekaterina Salnikova, Ph.D., ’14 (M.S.) were determined to find out in a new study conducted on dairy milk’s label claims.

Why study milk labels? Well for starters, milk is ubiquitous. Parents feed it to their children, countless recipes call for it as an ingredient, and what would a cookie be without its infamous counterpart: milk.

But there’s something interesting about the way milk is marketed, explains Stanton.

“Milk is a strange category. Having studied dairy for about 20 years, I still have no idea why they label it the way they do. The single biggest item on a milk label is the word ‘milk.’ So the only thing you're telling consumers (or really, yelling at consumers) is the thing that they actually know,” he says. “They really failed to use this label to describe the various benefits and attributes of milk.”

Beyond the product name itself, Stanton and Salnikova wanted to identify which attributes affect consumers’ intentions to purchase milk. Is it positive descriptors like “tastes great” or “contains nine essential vitamins and minerals,” or do negative descriptors like “low in fat” or “no hormones” put cartons in carts?

The three-part study started with extensive research into the claims that are currently being made by dairy marketers about milk. The researchers then conducted focus groups with milk drinkers ages 18-75 in five different U.S. cities to understand the importance of positive or negative label claims. The results of the first two studies informed an online survey to elicit additional users’ preferences. 

“It appears that milk processors have placed a disproportionate emphasis on ‘reduced’ ‘low’ and ‘free-from’ characteristics that do not have positive, consumer-reinforcing reasons to buy milk,” says Stanton of the study results, published in the British Food Journal. “Putting positive claims on milk labels might help regain the trust of consumers and revive consumer interest in the milk category.”

While Stanton hypothesizes that these negative biases cross all food categories, “you can only test one food a time,” he points out.

It’s applicable, real-life research like this — which he’ll be covering in his classes this fall — that puts St. Joe’s food marketing program on the map.

“We talk about things that are pertinent to the food industry and pertinent to people making decisions about how to sell food. We don't have to talk about widgets or computers or cars. It’s why a specialty degree like food marketing is so desirable from the food industry,” he says.