Tragedy and Branding

by Bob Schwartz

It may seem insensitive to mention this small and bizarre facet of a fresh tragedy. Yet an intensive commercial campaign has run headlong into sad current events in a very peculiar way.

The tragedy is the shooting and killing of multiple students at Oikos University, a small Christian college in Oakland, California. Few have heard of this school, and except for some scholars, Greek-speakers, and religionists, few will have heard the word “oikos” (which means house, home, household, or in the religious context, house of God; it is also the root of the word “ecology”).

Few, that is, except for the millions who have been exposed to this strange-sounding word by the Dannon Company in promoting its Greek-style yogurt. The story behind the brand is a little complicated. Stonyfield introduced it as its brand of organic Greek yogurt first. Then last year, its sister company Dannon adopted the Oikos brand as a new name for its previously unnamed non-organic “Greek yogurt.” Dannon launched the campaign starring John Stamos with its Super Bowl commercial, and it has been pushing ever since, aimed at its  insurgent independent yogurt rival Chobani (“chopani” means shepherd in Greek).

There is no sensitive way to say this: In the days ahead, as the coverage about this school tragedy expands and intensifies, it is likely that some small number of consumers is going to think of this yogurt the first time that they hear about an unknown college named Oikos. It’s not that the name is familiar to them; it’s that the name is peculiar and newly almost-familiar to them. It is also possible that some brand managers are thinking about this too, though their likely response is to do nothing at all in the face of strange happenstance. Strange happenstance, and a tragic event, much more important than any yogurt business.