(CN) - A new marketing campaign rolled out by Greek yogurt powerhouse Chobani is making multiple stops in federal court.
Central New York-based Chobani fired a preemptive shot Jan. 8 across the bow of Dannon, maker of the low-calorie Light & Fit Greek yogurt, seeking a ruling that the campaign for Chobani's low-calorie Simply 100 brand contains no "false, misleading, disparaging or deceptive statements or claims in connection with advertisements for various of its Greek yogurt products in violation of the Lanham Act and/or New York state law."
Two days later, though, General Mills, maker of the low-calorie Yoplait Greek 100 brand, alleged just that in a complaint filed against Chobani.
Advertising Age reported last week that Chobani's Simply 100 campaign, launched Jan. 6, "calls out" the light Greek yogurts made by Dannon and Yoplait for their use of artificial ingredients. The 12-week marketing push includes print, television and online ads, according to the trade publication.
In a statement, Chobani said the campaign was designed "to help consumers make informed decisions about their food choices, including the choice between natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners."
"We know people are concerned about artificial sweeteners in their food, and this campaign is about giving them truthful and accurate information," said Chobani's chief marketing officer Peter McGuinness.
Chobani, headquartered in Norwich, N.Y., about an hour northeast Binghamton, sparked a U.S. frenzy for Greek yogurt when it opened for business in 2007, according to the Washington Post. Greek yogurt, thicker and creamier than standard yogurt, today accounts for about half of all U.S. yogurt sales.
Chobani sales soared with Americans' appetites, hitting $1 billion in sales by 2012. Last year, sales were $1.6 billion according to the Post, but the pace of growth slowed due to start-up missteps, a product recall, and competition from big guns Yoplait and Dannon.
Chobani likes to boast that it makes high-quality Greek yogurt with "simple, authentic and natural ingredients" - including fresh milk from local farmers in New York and Idaho, where it produces its yogurt.
The company says its Simply 100 brand "is the only nationally distributed brand of reduced-calorie Greek yogurt that does not contain artificial sweeteners or artificial preservatives."
Chobani's new advertising campaign makes that same point, and discloses "among other claims" that Dannon Light & Fit Greek Yogurt contains the artificial sweetener sucralose, according to Chobani's federal lawsuit.
The complaint explains that sucralose is a noncaloric sugar made in a five-step process that selectively substitutes chlorine atoms to convert the sugar to an inert, unreactive substance.
That keeps sucralose from being broken down in the body for energy, "thus making sucralose intensely sweet and yet noncaloric," Chobani claims.
The company says that after it launched the Simply 100 campaign, a Dannon representative told the media that Chobani's claims "were 'untrue and irresponsible'" and that Dannon intended "'to pursue all available remedies'" to counter the advertising.
According to the complaint, Chobani received an emailed letter from a Dannon attorney at 6 p.m. on Jan. 7 that accused the company of violating New York law and the Lanham Act through the campaign. The letter "demanded that Chobani immediately discontinue the Simply 100 campaign," Chobani says.
According to the complaint, Dannon - owned by France's Danone SA and headquartered outside New York City in White Plains - has found fault with Chobani before, accusing the company last summer of false and misleading claims about the sugar content of its Greek yogurts versus regular yogurt.
In its lawsuit, Chobani seeks a declaratory judgment that no claims in the Simply 100 campaign nor any of the sugar comparison claims that Dannon objects to amount to false advertising.
Julia Huston of Foley Hoad in Boston represents Chobani.
General Mills' Jan. 10 complaint in Minneapolis calls the new ads an "attack campaign" and asks that Chobani be enjoined immediately from continuing them.
The lawsuit says the ads portray the Yoplait Greek 100 brand as "laced with a pesticide that is 'used to kill bugs,'" when in fact the substance targeted is potassium sorbate, a widely used preservative.
General Mills, based in suburban Minneapolis, claims the campaign amounts to false advertising that violates the Lanham Act and Minnesota law.
Not enjoining the ads "will irreparably harm General Mills and the goodwill it has developed over several years with millions of dollars to build and protect the Yoplait Greek 100 brand and the Yoplait line of yogurts," the complaint states.
The 23-page lawsuit says General Mills spent more than $900 million over the last five years to market Yoplait. Annual revenue from the Yoplait Greek 100 line is about $200 million, according to the company.
The complaint includes an online link to one Chobani ad that General Mills says "goes so far as to convey" that Yoplait Greek 100 "is so dangerous and unfit to eat that consumers should discard it as garbage."
Randall Kahnke of Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis represents General Mills.
A Dannon spokesman told Advertising Age last week that its Light & Fit Greek yogurt has been successful due to its taste, flavor variety and 80 calories. The publication said the spokesman noted that sucralose has been widely used as a sweetener for more than 15 years. General Mills told Advertising Age that in testing sweeteners for Yoplait Greek 100, consumers liked the product with sucralose best.
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