How Activia went from stodgy digestive aid to trendy wellness brand

Danone launched Activia, the probiotic yogurt that claims to support gut health, in the United States in 2006. The following year, Curtis became the brand’s spokesperson. The ad campaign – touting Activia’s role in keeping consumers “regular” – generated some ridicule, but also boosted sales.

The brand has since transitioned from Curtis, tapping into other spokespersons over the years, and tweaking the way it promotes its products.

Today, Activia’s marketing campaigns are a long way from what they were a decade ago. A combination of new advertising and evolving consumer trends have helped Activia shed its image as a spoofable digestive aid and instead place it in the trendy world of wellness and gut health.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. The brand’s US sales grew from $472 million in 2019 to $506 million in 2021, according to the company. Activia could surpass Light + Fit to become Danone’s number one yogurt brand in the US this year.

But Activia has to be careful not to scare away old customers who first picked up the product because they were dealing with Curtis and her digestive issues.

“It’s a very delicate step,” said Pedro Silveira, Danone North America Yogurt President. “We don’t want to alienate” [our core customers]’, he said. “But at the same time we have to recruit new ones.”

Jamie Lee Curtis promoted Activia for years.

Activia arrives

When Danone first brought Activia to the US, it had to sell consumers the concept of a probiotic yogurt. Probiotics are living organisms, including bacteria and yeasts, that found in yogurt and other products. Experts say that eating probiotics can help with digestion or other problems, but some studies have shown that there isn’t much evidence that probiotics do that much for the average consumer.

“Not all probiotics are created equal,” said Miguel Freitas, VP of health and science at Danone. “Experts have suggested that most probiotics have strain-specific mechanisms of action linked to several benefits.”

On its website, Activia says its yogurt “can help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomforts” such as “bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and rumbling” when eaten twice a day for a few weeks and combined with a healthy lifestyle. and balanced diet.

With Curtis as its spokesperson, Danone distilled that information into a simple message: If you want to keep your bowel movements on track, eat Activia. In commercials, Curtis explained that eating Activia helped her stay regular. Sometimes she was joined by other women who also complained of digestive problems.

No one spoke outright about bowel movements, but the implication was clear.

The ads were, unsurprisingly, mined for parody. Saturday Night Live aired a skit in 2008 in which Kristen Wiig plays Curtis, incessantly spooning Activia in her mouth and — spoiler alert — soiling her pants while shooting a commercial. It’s not the most refined of humor, but apparently it resonated – the following year, Wiig reprised the role in an even more scatological sequel.
Kristen Wiig as Jamie Lee Curtis in a 2008 SNL sketch making fun of Activia.

It may seem like the whole thing was a big flop. But in fact sales increased. “At that particular moment, that campaign was very successful,” Silveira said.

The brand had “a tremendous period of growth in which” [Curtis] was our brand ambassador,” Jeffrey Rothman, then a marketing VP at the company, told The New York Times in 2014.
But things didn’t go smoothly — in 2010, the company, then known as Dannon, agreed to settle the Federal Trade Commission’s allegations of misleading advertising. The FTC claimed that commercials stating that just one daily serving of Activia provided relief from irregularities were misleading.
“Dannon agreed to convey more clearly that Activia’s beneficial effects on irregularities and transit time are confirmed at three servings per day,” the company said in a statement at the time, according to a 2010 report from The New York Times. “The essence of Dannon’s advertising remains unchanged and will remain true and in compliance with all laws and regulations,” the company added.

Danone didn’t see the parodies of his campaign as a bad thing, Silveira said, noting that it’s possible to “take advantage” of such attention and use it to “start a positive conversation”.

Containers of Dannon Activia Yogurt can be seen on a supermarket shelf in 2009.
Still, Danone began to distance himself from such messages. Curtis worked through 2013. The following year, Activia announced a number of new spokespersons, including Reba McEntire and Laila Ali. Rather than emphasizing regularity, the new campaigns linked eating Activia to having a “happy tummy.” That year, the brand also featured pop sensation Shakira in a commercial.
In July 2020, Activia launched a new marketing initiative focused on the more vibrant, less precise concepts of gut health and wellness.
“Our goal is to connect with a younger audience and show how the gut is the launching pad for so much about how we feel,” Sonika Patel, vice president of marketing for Danone North America, said in a statement at the time. “Bright, fun and musical, our new direction draws attention to how much of your daily life is influenced by your gut.”
The “A to Z” commercial features an acrostic and a diverse selection of non-celebrities working out, dancing, kissing and, of course, eating yogurt.

A few years ago, “we saw an opportunity to rejuvenate the brand,” said Silveira, describing it as an evolution rather than a rejection of that original Curtis campaign concept. Danone tested the new commercials to make sure they don’t alienate consumers, Silveira added. The brand now points to the renewed campaign as a growth engine.

“You’re selling to what people want to be, not necessarily what they are,” says Bob Samples, an executive-in-residence at Western Michigan University, where he teaches students about marketing food and consumer goods. The lifestyle in the commercials could be ambitious for older consumers, he said. “If I’m marketing this to millennials, I’ll probably hit the baby boomers.”

The quest for gut health

As Danone evolved its marketing campaigns, more consumers turned to probiotics and pursued the so-called gut health.

In a 2021 report, research firm Mintel said that when asked what benefit would encourage them to try more yogurt, about 34% of respondents indicated gut health.

Interest in probiotics really took off during the pandemic, said Claire Lancaster, senior strategist on the food and beverage team at WGSN, a trend forecasting company.

“We saw huge spikes in the conversation around [gut health] during the onset of the pandemic,” she said. “It’s picked up steam ever since.”

Drinkable versions of Activia are designed for the yogurt consumer on the go.

Online Calling Younger Consumers “Specific” [probiotic] strains they like to take,” Lancaster noted. “It’s gotten pretty trendy to be hyper-aware.”

Samples suggested that younger consumers view probiotics as some sort of recovery aid, even though that may not be the case. “The mindset of a lot of young people is that if I eat enough yogurt, I can have a bunch of fries,” Samples said.

In addition, yogurt sales have increased in general, mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yogurt sales in the US rose from $9 billion in 2019 to $9.3 billion in 2021, according to research firm Euromonitor.

Activia is also taking other approaches to entice consumers. An example: drinkable versions of Activia, sold in bottles, that: let consumers drink the product on the go. In its report, Mintel said the “yogurt drinks segment will drive post-pandemic growth”.

Between the new ads, the new varieties and the gut health trend, Activia now looks very different from today’s customers. Silveira believes younger Activia consumers “were not exposed to the Jamie Lee Curtis campaign”, and will not associate the messages in her commercials with the product.

Monsters agreed that consumers generally have short memories for things like marketing, but said they’ll remember a couple of things.

“I think everyone will remember Jamie running the commercials, but probably not what the message was… except a lot of people were making fun of it [for being] the yogurt that made you poop.”