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Gary Hirshberg, president and “CE-YO” of Stonyfield Farms, addresses a the Kellogg School at an event organized by the Social Impact Club

Health, and healthy profits, the mission of Stonyfield Farms ‘CE-YO’

By Matt Golosinski

5/1/2004 - Eating yogurt sure seems to have put the fire in Gary Hirshberg, president and “CE-YO” of Stonyfield Farms, the leading manufacturer of all-natural and organic yogurt in the United States.

Hirshberg pulled no punches during his May 3 visit to the Kellogg School, addressing the subject of mission branding — a term he prefers to “cause-related marketing” — before some 60 Kellogg students, faculty and staff.

His message: the environment, like many overweight Americans, is in sad shape, and the business community can take the lead in remedying matters, while still earning healthy profits.

“We’re all compost, sooner or later,” said Hirshberg, who recently turned 50. “Life’s too short. If we don’t change the way we purchase commodities and treat the land, there’s no future.”

The latest corporate leader to appear as part of the Kellogg Social Impact Club’s excellent speaker series, Hirshberg called business “the most powerful force on the planet,” and said that many social and environmental problems exist largely because business has not made solutions a priority.

But he also insisted that business has the power to create a sustainable future, if executives “encode their mission” into everything they do.

Mission branding is an “attitude and conscious strategy” that results from management’s commitment to social good as part of their firm’s overall business model, said Hirshberg.

“Business cannot be divorced from the problems of society,” he stated, standing before a picture of the Earth. “We are out of places to play. We have only one of them.”

Trained as a climatologist, Hirshberg cited alarming data to support his contention that large-scale changes in consumption are “compelling and necessary, but also a huge business opportunity.” Included among these details were figures from the Munich Society for Environmental Research about the rapid decline of Alpine glaciers, as well as research indicating that 3-to-6-year-olds eating conventional diets have six times more pesticides concentrated in their bodies than do children who eat organic diets.

In addition, he noted studies that estimate some 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese — “a health-care crisis and an economic crisis” that he said results in 300,000 deaths per year.

Responding to these facts, Hirshberg has also launched a chain of restaurants called O’Naturals, which aims to be the leading alternative to mainstream fast-food restaurants. Serving a variety of healthy, often organic foods, O’Naturals is currently open in New Hampshire and Maine, with plans to grow in other locations.

“All of humanity ate organic food until 1950,” said Hirshberg, who believes society is on the verge of a “trend reversal” and the “dawn of renewable energy” with regard to depletion of natural resources.

Some statistics suggest he may be right.

Hirshberg noted that organic foods currently is a $13.7 billion business in the United States, having tripled earnings in just four years. While still only 4.5 percent of the total U.S. food industry, the organic sector is the fastest growing part of the industry, said Hirshberg.

He also cited market research data indicating that 92 percent of customers want explicit labels on genetically modified foods, and that 60 percent are willing to pay more for food produced without chemicals — enormous potential business opportunities for firms that understand this part of the marketplace.

Founded by Hirshberg in 1983 with just seven cows, New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farms today earns more than $150 million in annual sales with distribution in all 50 U.S. states, often leading with an innovative marketing edge that combines the firm’s business and social mission.

Provocative advertising, including such initiatives as the “We Salute Your Commute” promotion on Chicago Metra trains that distributed almost 90,000 yogurt samples in three days, helps offset the firm’s comparatively modest marketing budget, said Hirshberg. The firm has also placed natural foods vending machines in schools as “a healthy alternative to the junk-food” typically found there.

Stonyfield Farms also contributes 10 percent of its profits to a host of environmental causes, such as National Public Radio’s award-winning “Living on Earth” series. The company’s Web site (www.Stonyfield.com) also serves as a repository of environmental information and links.

In 2003, the France-based consumer products company Groupe Danone bought 80 percent of Stonyfield Farms. However, Hirshberg noted that he retains veto/voting control of the business and that the arrangement is part of his long-term strategy to play a role in forcing larger companies to move their product lines toward more organics.

“The way to predict the future is to invent it,” said Hirshberg.