How Yoplait got its start

More than 100,000 French dairy farmers couldn’t go wrong when they banded together in 1964 to create the dairy cooperative that a year later would become Yoplait.

Seeing the potential of yogurt

At the time, the farmers from six regional dairy co-ops were eager to sell their wide range of products including yogurt on a national level in France. They knew they would have a better chance to accomplish this goal with the creation of Sociéte de Diffusion de Marque, also known as Sodima.

Yogurt was key, and the co-op leaders knew so at a formal meeting during the early stages of their partnership. They shared their long-term goals in the parlor of Paris’ famous Hotel Lutetia.

“We had foreknowledge of the market,” said Andre Gaillard, Sodima president at the time. “We firmly believe that yogurt is a product of the future, the essential food for future generations.”

Boy, were they right. As Yoplait has become one of the world’s most popular yogurts. Its products are now available in more than 70 countries with its largest markets being France, the U.S., the UK, Mexico, Australia and Israel.

The Yoplait name emerged in 1965 when the French dairy farmers from those six co-ops dropped their own respective brands, and came up with a moniker derived from the contraction of two of Sodima’s more recognizable member co-ops – Yola and Coplait.

Yoplait’s cow

Yoplait officially launched on Sept. 25, 1965, in Paris, relying on two logos that temporarily co-existed. The six-petal flower – which lost a petal in 2009 – is the one most people equate with Yoplait, as each petal represented the six founding co-ops.

But the other logo was a bizarre image.

Yoplait also had Michonnette, a cow used in print advertisements. Lying in the meadow with milk streaming from her udders and into empty cups of Yoplait that she held in her hooves, Michonnette was a sight to behold.

The creation of renowned French poster artist Raymond Savignac, Michonnette (pronounced “mi-show-net”), puzzled some people and received a mixed reception from Sodima co-op members.

Robert Commandeur, former Sodima supervisory board president remembered: “We had to overcome the reluctance of producers who said, ‘You are crazy to present things like this, a cow with paws upwards! Well, if this is to sell our milk …’”

A real life version of Michonnette appeared at Yoplait’s grand launch party. The plan was to have the cow on the sixth floor of the company’s Paris advertising agency, where the celebration was held. But due to security reasons, Michonnette couldn’t make the trip. Instead, the cow stayed in the lobby to greet guests.

Michonnette was a pioneer bovine since she was the first cow Yoplait used in its advertising scheme. Today, Yoplait continues to rely on cows to promote the rich, whole milk used to make its yogurt.

From France to Michigan

Yoplait’s first products were plain-flavored yogurt and cream. But by 1967, the company produced its first fruit-flavored yogurts.

The secret of Yoplait couldn’t be contained by the French for long, though.

By 1969, Switzerland became the first country outside of France to market Yoplait through the brand’s first franchising agreement. Then, in 1971, Yoplait crossed the Atlantic and found its way onto store shelves in the U.S. and in the Canadian province of Quebec.

However, it took the marketing savvy of a small U.S. company’s leader to expand Yoplait in North America.

In 1974, Michigan Cottage Cheese Co., led by William S. Bennet, acquired the U.S. licensing rights to make and market Yoplait in the U.S.

It took the Otsego, Michigan-based company a little more than a year to get Americans ready for Yoplait by installing the yogurt-making and packaging facilities at its plant in Reed City, Mich., and devise marketing and advertising programs.

In September 1975, the plant began test runs and the first container of Yoplait yogurt rolled off the line. By January 1976, Michigan Cottage Cheese launched Yoplait products full scale.

General Mills and Yoplait team up in 1977

General Mills’ ties with Yoplait began in October 1977 when we signed a franchise agreement with Sodima, giving us the exclusive rights to market the brand in the U.S. But prior to the agreement, it took at least two years for us to get to that point.

In 1975, Steve Rothschild, a General Mills executive vice president, was tasked with exploring the feasibility of yogurt as a new product for our company. He investigated a number of products as far away as Hamburg, Germany, before Yoplait caught his eye.

“One day I saw Yoplait on a grocery shelf in Minneapolis, so I took it to our corporate growth department, and I said, ‘Can you tell me anything about this?’ Within a week we were in Michigan,” he said.

Rothschild was referring to Michigan Cottage Cheese Co. Once the General Mills team determined yogurt could be a profitable endeavor, it secured the U.S. rights for Yoplait.

And along with the Yoplait marketing rights, General Mills also acquired the Reed City yogurt plant from Michigan Cottage Cheese Co. Today, Yoplait yogurt continues to be made there as well as at other U.S. plants.

Yoplait USA soon was established by General Mills. Within a few months, the brand captured 20 percent of the U.S. yogurt market thanks to a campaign that focused on the brand’s French origins.

As president of Yoplait USA from 1977-1983, Rothschild recognized the French value of Yoplait and his team launched a marketing campaign in 1979 showing American celebrities of the time speaking French.

For example, Yoplait hired actors Jack Klugman and Loretta Swit, and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to promote the sophisticated French-ness of Yoplait.

A similar campaign arrived in 1981, noting what happens when a “real American” tries Yoplait yogurt. The pitchmen included comic strip detective Dick Tracy.

Also, product placement of sorts in at least one movie may have raised the Yoplait’s profile. In the summer of 1983, box-office smash “Mr. Mom,” actor Michael Keaton plays poker using coupons for Yoplait yogurt.

By 1990, Sodima changed its name to Sodiaal – Sociéte de Diffusion Internationale Agroalimentaire, and global growth for Yoplait continued.

Along the way, Sodiaal gained another partner for Yoplait. In January 2002, the co-op sold a 50 percent stake in the company to private equity firm PAI Partners, a division of France-based banking giant BNP Paribas.

And that eventually led to General Mills’ acquisition of a majority stake in Yoplait in July 2011. We purchased a 51 percent stake – PAI Partners’ entire share as well as a 1% share from Sodiaal.

The business move would play well with our intent to accelerate Yoplait’s expansion into developing countries such as China. And it came to fruition in June of this year when Yoplait debuted in China.