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Got Milk? Got Fired: 5 Valuable Lessons That All Executives Must Heed

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The "Got Milk?" advertising campaign was created in 1993 by the advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for the California Milk Processor Board. It was considered to be enormously effective (we'll get to that), and so it was licensed in 1995 by the national Milk Processor Education Program. But after decades of use, the "Got Milk?" campaign did not stop the erosion of milk consumption per person. It failed. Rather surprisingly, it took nearly 20 years, far too long, for the national organization to fire the campaign. The lessons learned from the "Got Milk?" debacle are numerous. And yes, I think "Got Milk?" was a debacle. Critical thinking leads us to five important lessons that all executives must heed.

Lesson One: Don't Mistake Popularity With Effectiveness. The "Got Milk?" campaign was brilliantly creative and catchy. It became a darling in the marketing world, collecting the most prestigious awards available. It became a darling of the media that helped communicate the campaign to the world. It became a darling with celebrities who wanted to get in on the act. It became a darling with licensing partners that paid the California Milk Processor Board for the rights to use the "Got Milk?" slogan. And it became a darling with consumers who loved the funny advertising. In very little time, 90 percent of adults were familiar with the "Got Milk?" campaign.

But popular darlings are not necessarily effective. How many times have you laughed at a commercial but it did not motivate you to buy the product again and again? Lots of times.

"Got Milk?" did not reverse the historical decline of milk consumption. On a national basis, data shows that the yearly consumption of milk has declined from 23.9 gallons per person in 1995 (the year "Got Milk?" began nationally) to roughly 20 gallons per person in 2011. That's not good. The per capita consumption in California where the campaign started has fallen as well. One early report of the success of the "Got Milk?" advertising stated that in 1994, one year after the "Got Milk?" campaign began in California, total milk consumption in the state rose to 755 million total gallons, a 2 percent increase. That was part of the hype. My own recent calculation, using archival data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, puts the percentage increase at far less. But regardless of which you believe, even a 2 percent increase is only a small blip in the scheme of things. Importantly, the advertising spending during the launch in California was massive, suggesting that the added media dollars may have been a critical cause of the increase, and not necessarily due only to the creativity of "Got Milk?" itself. Soon after the sales blip in California, and despite the introduction of "Got Milk?" nationally, the long decline in per capita consumption continued.

A recent news report said of the Got Milk? campaign that, "While the ads proved successful, milk sales overall have been on a steady national decline for decades." Huh? How can the reporter state that the ads were effective and in the same sentence declare that they did not improve sales? He mistook popularity for effectiveness. Most people do.

Perhaps they simply do not know what great success really looks like. In 1984 Michael Eisner took a sleepy little animation studio called Disney and increased revenue from $1.5 billion to just over $30 billion by 2005. In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca turned Chrysler from a losing business into a profitable one during a period of intense competition. In my previous longtime role as SVP and chief strategist at Ogilvy & Mather advertising in Los Angeles, we took one sleepy little brand from a $350 million business to a $2 billion dollar behemoth in about 10 years. In each of these cases a mere 2 percent increase would have been considered a rounding error.

More and more, the answer to the question of "Got Milk?" from consumers was a resounding, "NO... because I'm drinking something else now!"

Lesson Two: Identify The Real Problem. The "Got Milk?" campaign was creatively brilliant but strategically flawed. The strategy centered around a so-called deprivation idea, derived from focus group observations, in which consumers said they felt deprived when they ran out of milk. This was coupled with the fact that milk is often consumed with other foods. While intriguing and insightful, this situation was never really a prominent problem in most consumers' lives. People had milk in the refrigerator, and if they ran out, deprivation wasn't really as critical as portrayed. Funny for advertising? Yes. Commonly relatable? No.

So the real problem was never that people ran out of milk. The real problem was that consumers moved away from milk to sodas like Coke and Pepsi, and in later years, to tea, energy drinks and water. The landmark decade was the 70s when the consumption of sodas shot up like a rocket, crossing the consumption of milk that headed downward. Today, consumers drink well over twice as much carbonated soft drinks than they drink milk. The "Got Milk?" deprivation strategy was a peashooter in a gun fight. As Coke and Pepsi battled each other, milk got trampled, reflecting an ancient proverb that reads, "When Elephants fight, the ants die." Milk marketing needed to attack other beverages by providing competitive reasons for consumers to drink more milk, but it never did so effectively.

Additionally, the "Got Milk?" campaign reportedly targeted frequent milk users to get them to drink more. But the problem was never among frequent milk users; it was among those who were consuming milk less frequently than they had been. Data from an insightful USDA study revealed that from 1977-78 to 2007-08, the percentage of consumers who did not drink milk on a given day rose from 12 percent to 24 percent among preadolescent children and from 41 percent to 54 percent among adolescents and adults. The objective should have been to keep frequent users frequent, and to convert a growing number of infrequent users to frequent users. Only a more compelling competitive strategy could have accomplished this.

Lesson Three: Kill Underperforming Ideas Early. It took two decades of declining per capita milk consumption for the national board to finally fire "Got Milk?" and to reach for a new campaign. Two decades! I have never, ever, in my 30-plus years as a marketing executive had the benefit of my CEO being content with two decades of declining sales, especially if all of the competitors were rising. Could it be that the "Got Milk?" campaign was so popular that those in charge were afraid to discuss its ineffectiveness? Or could it be that the national Milk Processor Education Program tested many different strategies and creative approaches but never found one that was more motivational until now. I don't know the answer, but I would be very surprised if it's the latter. Though the national organization fired "Got Milk?" the California Milk Processor Board, which originated the campaign, is sticking with it. Is it really the most effective campaign that they can devise, or could it be that the popularity of the campaign still nets the board licensing fees paid by corporations and other milk boards to use the "Got Milk?" slogan. Again, I don't know the answer, but I would be surprised if it's the former.

Lesson Four: Don't Retrench. Take The Battle To The Enemy. The new national advertising campaign, developed by agency Lowe Campbell Ewald, focuses on the protein in milk and the benefits that it provides at breakfast. The tagline is "Start your day with the power of protein. Milk life." The commercials show consumers being propelled through life with the power that milk provides. The strategy harkens back to the popular "Milk. It does a body good" campaign of the 1980s when, not incidentally, per capita consumption of milk was higher than it is after two decades of "Got Milk?"

I think the new campaign is on a better strategic footing than the previous deprivation strategy, but it still does not acknowledge that other beverages are the competitors. It's not that milk is empowering that must be communicated, but that milk is more empowering than many other beverages that pass through consumers' lips. In my opinion, a frontal, no holds barred, direct attack on sodas is the only way to reverse the decline. It would also give the campaign a creative pizzazz that I believe it currently lacks. This was a complaint of the older "Milk. It does a body good" advertising campaign. Some felt it was boring which was one of the reasons it was abandoned.

Another critical issue is that the new campaign is only targeting breakfast, but the data suggests a broader battleground is warranted. A recent USDA study revealed that people are now less apt, verses years ago, to drink milk at any mealtime, especially at their midday and nighttime meals. In the late 70s, 39 percent of adolescents and adults drank milk with a morning meal, 24 percent at a midday meal, and 21 percent at a nighttime meal. By 2007-08, it decreased to 28 percent, 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively. While other beverages ate into breakfast, they mostly captured lunch and dinner. Milk should not retrench to breakfast alone. Milk should bring the battle everywhere, right to the enemy's turf. After all, an empowering message doesn't end at breakfast.

Other trends added to milk's list of enemies. Consumers were given alternative ways to obtain nutrients, especially calcium, and an explosion of consumers' on-the-go lifestyles had implications for packaging needs. But these, too, were hardly addressed.

Lesson Five: Don't Guess. Test. I'm a consumer researcher and strategist by trade and have conducted over one thousand consumer research studies on behalf of clients. Critical thinking demands that strategists consider a range of potential root causes for any given problem, and then develop a range of solutions before identifying the optimal one. Consumer research is a vital part of the process. When I see failure, it is often because root causes were never identified and/or not enough solutions were considered and tested before selecting the best one.

I admit that my opinion about "Got Milk?" is in hindsight and without full access to all the research that the milk boards and their agencies have. But this we do know about "Got Milk?"; when other beverages shot up, milk sales per capita continued to fall down.

The "Got Milk?" campaign should have received only one award; that of a campaign that was the most overtly popular, yet had the least observable long term effectiveness. "Got Milk?" got fired for a good reason. Don't let that happen to your brand.