Milk is an everyday essential, a fact of life, but falling consumption and consumer migration to retailers’ cheap niche products have almost dried up the doorstep delivery sector. However, the dairies are now pulling out all the marketing stop

Milk has had some of the snappiest advertising in the business. “Drinka pinta milka day” was arguably the best, but “Milk has gotta lotta bottle” and the Naomi Campbell milk moustache campaigns have come close.

But the overall marketing of milk, as distinct from its advertising, has been less imaginative. Despite a highly competitive and declining market, the vast majority of pints have until recently been sold in clear glass bottles with little or no branding.

However, in the past year dairies and retailers have shaken up their attitude towards milk marketing and come up with some added-value products which are successfully selling at a premium.

As Avonmore Dairies marketing director Alison Cannon says: “If you can do it with orange juice, why not with milk?” She admits that dairies have been sluggish in their approach to marketing. Specifically, she believes they have been too concerned with new product development centring on different fat levels.

UK milk consumption has been falling fairly steadily from 4.1 pints per person per week in 1987, to 4.03 pints in 1995, according to the Dairy Council’s Dairy Facts & Figures 1996. Consumption of wholemilk reached its nadir in 1996. The only sector of the milk market which is growing is semi-skimmed.

Migration from the doorstep to the retail trade is also continuing at an alarming rate. Cannon estimates doorstep delivery now accounts for 37 per cent of milk sales, compared with over 50 per cent five years ago, but she adds that the doorstep decline is now slowing.

The problem with marketing milk comes down to product perception and the fixed costs of delivering a fresh product every day. Not only is milk seen as a boring product, it is also shunned by many women who are concerned about their levels of fat intake. Dairy Crest marketing director Belinda Gooding says: “At the moment prices are dropping – consumers are actually paying very little for their milk.”

Three of the UK’s four largest dairies have introduced new products this year, which are aimed at differentiated market sections.

Dairy Crest launched Super League milk for rugby fans in February and followed this with Football Milk – TetraPak cartons branded with colours of various teams.

This has been joined by MD Foods, which has launched what it claims is the first branded UHT milk, called Tastes Like Fresh. And Unigate has introduced Nesquik Fresh – a range of flavoured milks – which is a clear example of a dairy linking milk to the brand values of another manufacturer.

As might be expected, retailers are also jumping on the milkfloat. Marks & Spencer introduced Welsh milk to its Welsh stores in March, following the roll-out of Ayrshire Milk in Scotland and Specially Selected Milk in the South.

In its Scottish stores, Kwik Save is now selling milk under the brand name of Robert Wiseman Dairies, which was listed in a recent AGB survey as the second strongest brand in Scotland, ahead of Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Heinz.

Asda has started to segment the market further. It has launched a new range called The Family of Milks, including products with added vitamins for children, and calcium targeted at pregnant women. These products are particularly significant as they are not sold at a price premium.

Milk cartons have also started to carry missing persons advertisements, an idea imported from the US. Gooding believes there is still more room for innovation in the market. She points to the products sold on the continent, such as milk mixed with fruit juice: “But I do not know how many of these products would be accepted by the UK consumer.”

She says there must be obvious possibilities for segmentation with added-value products, citing Dairy Crest’s own attempt, which failed, to launch milk with added sunflower oil.

Dairies are also gaining competitive advantage with their advertising. In the past they have been happy to leave advertising to a consortium – under the auspices of the National Dairy Council and dubbed the “Int milk brilliant” consortium. It included TV ads through BMP DDB, featuring Fast Show comedian Paul Whitehouse. Now, however, several groups have broken away and will generate their own advertising. Unigate has appointed DMB&B, and Dale Farm Express has taken on Cheetham Bell for branded milk campaigns.

Milk Marque is also waking up to the possibilities of branding.

It has just appointed its first dir-ector of marketing, Chris Bird.

Milk Marque, successor to the Milk Marketing Board, does not rule out having its own branded milk. A spokeswoman says: “Branded milk is not on the cards immediately but we cannot rule it out if we start processing our own milk.”

If dairies are to wrest control of milk sales from the retailer – Tesco now claims to be Britain’s number one sales point for milk – they will need to make better use of their unique weapon, the milkman. No other food retailer has the same possibilities for direct contact with the consumer. Cannon says: “We need to be more active in branding our service, in the same way that we brand our product.”

Milk Marque’s latest attempt at winning back share is a loyalty magazine disguised as a women’s interest title, called Home & Life. The magazine costs 1 and the first issue has been successful, selling 350,000 copies. Bird says: “We will continue to improve the product, which is exclusive to milkmen.”

Northern Foods subsidiary Dale Farm Express has begun a number of initiatives to build the relationship between milkman and consumer. Last year, it tied up with Lever Brothers and Kellogg to enable milkmen to deliver Persil and corn flakes, alongside the pint. However, the initiative was dropped as it upset retailers, which were already implementing their own home-delivery schemes.

Two years ago, talks were held between Northern and News International over plans to distribute the now-defunct tabloid Today from milk floats. Northern claims it will not resurrect the idea, as there was insufficient interest from customers.

Dale Farm Express milkmen already deliver non-food goods such as peat and household cleaning products. They have also tested quasi-loyalty programmes, such as promotions and competitions. Northern marketing executive Robin Robb says: “We are constantly looking at ways to use the unique infrastructure that the network of milkmen gives us.”

Cannon hints Avonmore is also exploring possible joint ventures between the dairy and retailers.

But Robb sounds a note of caution: “The main reason why doorstep decline is slowing is not because of marketing devices, but because dairies have considerably improved levels of service and are getting the milk delivered on time.”

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