Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has made a point of ensuring that the public knows how much he cares about his employees: About a year ago, he announced that he was giving them stakes in the company, to be taken out of his own shares, and last October, Chobani joined the growing ranks of US employers expanding their parental leave policies for both mothers and fathers.
Ulukaya, who was born in Turkey and emigrated to the US in 1994, has also been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. In February, Chobani was one of a few non-tech companies to sign onto an amicus brief in opposition to Trump’s executive order temporarily banning citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and suspending the admission of refugees; it is also one of several companies that have committed to hiring refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries this year.
If Ulukaya wanted attention for these stances, he certainly got it. The CEO appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program Sunday evening, where he defended his refugee hiring program with the memorable line: “The minute they get a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee.” He was also profiled in a cover story for the April issue of Fast Company, which focused on his conscientious approach to how he manages his business and his own wealth:
Chobani has always given 10% of its profits to charitable causes, and Ulukaya is eager to help the communities in which his company operates (in 2011, he renovated a public baseball field near his upstate New York plant, for example). Chobani also pays above-average wages, and that new family-leave policy offers full pay for any new parent, including foster and adoptive parents. Ulukaya has put a great deal of thought into cultivating a spirit of warmth and enthusiasm that most people wouldn’t associate with working in a factory, and when you spend time at the company’s plants, the positivity is obvious.
While Ulukaya and his company earned these favorable media mentions rather than buying them, that doesn’t mean they weren’t part of its public relations strategy. Ad Age‘s Jessica Wohl explains the role earned media is playing in Chobani’s new marketing campaign:
[T]he Greek yogurt marketer’s communications team likely did plenty of outreach to try to convince journalists to work on those pieces and dozens of stories out there on decisions to offer profit-sharing and paid parental leave, the fact that it employs hundreds of refugees, or how it recently began mentoring some startups through its Chobani Food Incubator. “A big part of how we’re getting our message out and our narrative out,” said Chief Marketing and Brand Officer Peter McGuinness, “is earned.” …
“A beautiful earned story is as important as a TV ad is, as important as a community event. They’re all storytelling, and we have a great story to tell, and they’re all authentic in their own way,” Mr. McGuinness said.
Chobani’s earned media marketing is yet another example of a company using its HR strategy to sell itself to consumers as well as talent. By embodying certain values—e.g., employee ownership, local community development, or welcoming refugees—Chobani is sending a message to consumers who share those values that they should support the company by buying its products.
This strategy can be risky, especially in a time of severe political polarization, but with a tight talent market and an increasingly values-driven consumer base, “HR as PR” is becoming a more important component of many companies’ consumer and employer branding. While Chobani’s refugee hiring program is being greeted with cheers in some quarters, in others it has been met with calls for a boycott and even death threats against Ulukaya. Nonetheless, he clearly sees the benefits outweighing the risks.