It’s a simple, two-word question: Got milk?

But that question marked a turning point in how consumers thought about milk. No longer was it just a healthy beverage, it was . . . essential.

Milk deprivation occurred when the bowl was filled with cereal, and the milk carton was empty; when the cookie was in your mouth, and there was no milk to wash it down.

The man credited with creating this seemingly simple advertising campaign, which started in 1994 and is still going, is Jeff Manning, who has gone on to help other industries create indelible images for their products. For several years now, he has worked with the Cherry Marketing Institute in an effort to change the image of tart cherries from a relatively sugar-laden pie filling into a healthy “superfruit,” in the same class as blueberries and ­cranberries.

What Manning calls “category marketing” has been applied to other commodities in recent years, he said, and it can work for apples and other fruit as well. The key is to find that “strategic nugget,” the one place where an apple, for example, is essential and nothing else will do. Like milk with a bowl of cereal.

“You have to find it, and it has to be true,” he said. What better thing could apple ­producers have wished for than for McDonald’s to choose apple slices as a healthful alternative to French-fried potatoes?

While Got milk? transformed milk into a virtual brand, Manning emphasized that, while brands are useful to those who own and manage them, milk, apples, beef, raisins, potatoes, and other agricultural products are commodities that often have generic or category marketing programs.

While the fundamentals of marketing apply, he said, these programs—like the one in the tart cherry industry—are sponsored by agricultural boards or commissions that use producer money— sometimes gathered under marketing orders with checkoff programs and ­government oversight.

Other promotion campaigns have created memorable lines—The incredible edible egg; Beef, it’s what’s for dinner; Pork, the other white meat; Cherries, not just another berry; and Potatoes, America’s favorite vegetable.

Manning said that “Got milk?” could be described as “got ripped off,” because it has been so widely imitated. Virtually any product can ride on the milk bandwagon by ­putting “got” in front of it.

On the other hand, Manning has capitalized on it as well. After earning his reputation at the California Milk Advisory Board, in 2005 he launched Got Manning?, a consulting company with a mission to “ignite brands and categories with fresh, provocative, ­strategic thinking,” according to his Web site.

Different thinking

His clients include Jamba Juice, the Cherry Marketing Institute, Siemens TTB, Alta Med Health Care Services, RGS Solar, and the California Milk Advisory Board. He wrote Got Milk? the book. He gives speeches and conducts workshops on category marketing.

Manning says that conceiving, organizing, funding, and managing a generic program requires a different line of thinking. Here are some reasons:

  • Most such programs are legislated by state or federal governments, and there are rules about how checkoff funds can be spent.
  • People who are competitors have to work together.
  • Consumer attitudes toward commodities are embedded and hard to change.
  • Generic programs are often outspent by branded competition by 10 to 1.
  • Accountability is complicated, but measures of effectiveness are needed.

On the plus side, however, strategic partners are sometime easier to find between a brand and a commodity than between brands.

In the Got milk? campaign, milk partnered with the Sesame Street Muppet, the Cookie Monster, on children’s television and with Nabisco and Oreo cookies. Similar things have occurred in the tart cherry marketing campaign.

“A small budget can generate results,” Manning said of the cherry campaign. That budget is about $1.1 million a year, spends no money on paid consumer advertising, and relies heavily on social media and paid celebrities who appear on afternoon television shows. It does spend some funds on business-to-business advertising—to those who use cherries as ingredients—as well as on research into health benefits.

For such programs to work, Manning said, they must:

  • Set concrete objectives and manage expectations
  • Focus and concentrate limited dollars
  • Aggressively seek out partners
  • Build everything on a strategic platform (that strategic nugget)
  • Support all brands
  • Commit to the long haul
  • Be smarter and more creative
  • Be passionate and own the program

Commitment to the long haul can be difficult. The short crop in apples and cherries across the eastern United States has put many programs into idling mode because of a shortage of funds.