There are 77 different kinds of yogurt crowding the coolers at Safeway, but Kellogg Co. figures that's not enough.
The company that started with corn flakes and created a breakfast bonanza ranging from All-Natural to artificially flavored Froot Loops is determined to do the same thing for yogurt.
In the next few weeks Kellogg will use Washington and Baltimore supermarkets to begin the national rollout of "Whitney's," a new brand that Kellogg officials claim will be "the Haagen-Dazs of yogurt."
Kellogg's marketing strategy is to make Whitney's the highest-priced fermented milk money can buy, selling it for 62 to 65 cents for six ounces while house brands go for 40 cents for eight ounces.
The up-market introduction began with a black-tie dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel earlier this summer for 125 grocery trade representatives.
"It's not unusual to hold a trade dinner," explained Dave Brenner, director of market development for Kellogg's yogurt division. "It is unusual perhaps for it to be black tie. We wanted to establish the evening as something different. We're trying to establish this product as a step above."
Although Kellogg won't say how much it has budgeted to promote its new high-class yogurt, supermarket industry representatives who attended the formal bash agreed that the company is "going to spend one heck of a lot of money."
Brenner said promotional plans for the Baltimore-Washington area include a roaming yogurt truck that will travel around the territory offering free samples.
Kellogg's new brand will face at least seven major yogurts carried by supermarkets in metropolitan Washington, and it will face many more in bigger yogurt markets like New York, New England, and the West Coast, when its national introduction is completed next year.
Despite the competition, Brenner said Kellogg expects Whitney's to assume "leadership position" in the yogurt market, but he declined to be specific about market share projections.
"We're entering the market with the first truly premium yogurt," he said. "We've tried to design the perfect product."
The new product has been "engineered" for a smoother, richer, more textured taste than its competitors, said Brenner. "It will come in a cup which looks as though it was designed by Tiffany's."
A few years ago most supermarkets carried yogurt as a specialty item in the dairy case, devoting a few inconspicuous feet of shelf space to a limited number of varieties.
Since then, as Safeway spokesman Maurice Reinhart puts it, the yogurt business has "exploded." New brands, new styles and new flavors are now part of a serious $532 million-a-year business growing at a 19 percent annual clip.
Yogurt eaters already can choose among yogurt with fruit on the bottom, yogurt with fruit mixed in, and yogurt with no fruit. Flavors range from apple and spice or daiquiri and pina colada to plain vanilla and plain plain.
In picking the Baltimore-Washington area to begin its nationwide roll-out of Whitney's, Kellogg is betting that Washington is a sleeping giant of yogurt demand waiting to be awakened to the sweet-tart taste.
"Consumption here is way behind the West Coast or New York," said Safeway's Reinhart, confirming Brenner's assessment of this market's position in relation to the nation's yogurt "hot spots."
The Baltimore-Washington area's yogurt sales totaled $19.1 million in 1981, according to figures compiled by Kellogg. Yogurt consumption here is about 40 percent less per person than in metropolitan New York, he noted.
By aiming for the very top of the yogurt strata with a product costing twice as much per ounce as its lowest-priced competitors, Kellogg hopes to grab a new segment of a market now dominated by Dannon.
With an estimated 48 percent of the yogurt sales in the Baltimore/Washington area, Dannon sells an eight-ounce cup for 49 cents in most supermarkets.
A distant second in sales is Yoplait, with La Yogurt and Le Shake tied for third. The cost of a carton of yogurt ranges from three-for-$1 for house brands on special to about 60 cents for the fanciest flavored national brands.
The potential for profit in the fast-growing yogurt market first attracted Kellogg several years ago. In 1980, Kellogg acquired Le Shake, whose claim to distinction is that its yogurt is so runny you can drink it.
Four years of research and 2,200 taste tests later, Kellogg is now ready to introduce Whitney's.
Safeway and other supermarket chains expect to make room for the new product on their overflowing yogurt shelves if they are satisfied with Kellogg's advertising and promotion plans.
Women and children are the major buyers of yogurt, according to Brenner's market research, and Kellogg will be targeting its promotional efforts toward them.