But it’s not terminal, insists MilkPep (The Milk Processor Education Program, funded by the nation's milk companies) which highlights pockets of growth in value-added areas of the market such as organic, lactose-free, ultrafiltered high-protein milks, A2 milks, and functional dairy products.
“I think the demise of milk is greatly exaggerated,” said MilkPep CEO Yin Woon Rani, formerly chief consumer experience officer at Campbell Soup, who took the helm at MikPep in October 2019. “It’s still a huge category with a lot of growth areas, although there's some natural attrition, and I wouldn't have taken this job if I thought it was in terminal decline.
“40% of the category is actually growing," she told FoodNavigator-USA. "And so, like any big portfolio there's parts of growth and part of constriction. It's still [consumed] in 94% of households.”
US retail sales of lactose-reduced and lactose-free milk rose 13.5% in the 52 weeks to July 3, 2021
According to Nielsen data, US retail dollar sales of cow’s milk were down -1.4% in the 52 weeks to July 3, 2021, while sales of lactose-reduced and lactose-free milk were up +13.5%.
Sales of dairy alternatives were up +12.1% over the same period, driven by strong growth in oatmilk (+105%) and almondmilk (+5.9%), although ricemilk, coconutmilk and soymilk experience a drop in year-on-year sales.
However, plant-based milks are not solely responsible for the decline in sales of fluid dairy milk, with a 2020 report from the USDA's economic research service noting that the increase in sales of plant-based milks between 2013 and 2017 was one-fifth the size of the decrease in Americans’ purchases of cow’s milk, suggesting that other factors are clearly at play, said Rani.
When it comes to volumes meanwhile, plant-based milks (which have a higher ticket price) are dwarfed by dairy milk, she noted: “I always like to point out that dairy producers sold more gallons of milk in three days last year than makers of oatmilk sold in all of 2020 [around 26 million gallons].”
Why is milk consumption falling?
While breakfast cereal consumption has declined over the years, explaining some of the drop in fluid milk consumption (although covid changed the picture somewhat with more Americans eating breakfast at home), the rise of bottled water, energy drinks, ready to drink tea and coffee and other products has also contributed to the drop, said Rani.
“One of the reasons bottled water has done well is that it’s a great portable convenient solution that fits in with people’s lifestyles, whereas milk’s freshness, which is a great strength in some ways, is also a weakness, which is why we see some growth in shelf stable milk products [some brands such as Slate chocolate milk are also addressing this issue with shelf-stable milk products in cans for on-the-go consumption].
“But there’s no one thing, there's just a lot of more choice now, but milk still does really well from a health perspective, with consumers still rating it #1, and we’ve made some nice gains with some key audience groups during the pandemic, particularly among teens and tweens.”
Put another way, with some exceptions, consumers are not generally consciously turning away from dairy milk because they have a problem with it, she said. Indeed, many shoppers aren’t even aware that they’re consuming less than they used to. It’s simply that their lifestyles are changing.
‘It’s about making people stop and think about milk’
In this environment, MilkPep - which is tasked with driving milk consumption – is focused on relevance. In other words, reminding people who perhaps already feel fairly positive about milk, that it’s relevant to their lives, said Rani.
“We have a clear strategy of winning with kids and families because they are important, both in the now and from a lifetime value standpoint. It’s about making people stop and think about milk, as it’s such a routine staple purchase that I think people don't often stop and think about what it really delivers in their diet, that milk is just an incredible nutritional powerhouse.
“So our current Olympic campaign is a lot about just kicking the foundational truths about milk and presenting them in a more surprising, contemporary, attention-grabbing kind of way, although we also have an evergreen content area where we talk about nutritional facts and 13 essential nutrients, recipes, and information about sustainability [dairy milk contains calcium, protein, phosphorus, selenium, iodine, zinc, potassium, pantothenic acid, and vitamins D, A, B12, B2 and B3].
“In our testing, I've been astonished, even if you don't say anything functional about milk, people will literally fill in the blanks. You feel like, come on, we’ve paid somebody to say that right? But people will say [unprompted, in focus groups], Milk makes me strong, Milk is good for my body…”
Sharp drop offs in milk consumption when kids hit teen years
Generally speaking, very young children are still drinking a fair amount of milk, which – along with water – is what they are advised to drink by the American Academy of Pediatrics said Rani, but as they grow up, they start to displace some of it with beverages with a lower nutritional value.
“Drinking milk is still a very common habit with young kids, but we've seen some drop off over the last few years; teens is probably the group where we see a sharper drop off, but when people become parents for the first time, you see gains again.”
Fat is back
When it comes to fat levels, while the latest dietary guidelines for Americans still encourage ‘low fat dairy’ consumption, consumers are much less hung up about fat than they used to be (sugar is now the nutritional bogeyman), with IRI data showing that US retail dollar sales of whole milk were up +3.1% in the 52 weeks to June 13, 2021 and sales of 2% milk were up +1.3%, while sales of 0-5-1% were down – 4.6% and sales of fat-free milk were down -3.4%.
Dollar sales of organic white milk (ie. unflavored) were up +3.4% over the same period, meanwhile.
You’re going to need milk for that…
MilkPep’s latest campaign – (strapline: ‘You’re going to need milk for that’) – features athletes including Ariel Torres (karate), Cat Osterman (Softball), Hannah Roberts (BMX Freestyle), and Maurio McCoy (Skateboarding), and positions milk as the original performance drink.
MilkPep ad ‘The Wall’ was directed by Jimmy Chin, famed mountaineer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker of ‘Free Solo,’ for the iconic got milk? brand’s new campaign, You’re Gonna Need Milk for That. Chin’s camera work captures elite climber Kai Lightner as he scales a 30-foot wall atop a Kansas City skyscraper:
MilkPep ad ‘The Fridge’ captures the moment local shoppers reach into the dairy cooler to grab a carton of milk, only to come face-to-face with 2021 Olympian Ariel Torres and three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong training in a gym behind the milk aisle: