Sweet dreams for farm business as its natural sleep aid gains admirers
Simple re-branding and social media push boosted sales of much-loved milk, writes John Cradden
If you suffer from insomnia or your young children still struggle to stay asleep the whole night, a product like Lullaby Milk is likely to be of interest.
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It's a cow's milk that is rich in melatonin, a natural hormone which we produce in our bodies at night to get you ready for sleep, and works on the basis - scientifically proven - that when cows are milked before daybreak, their milk contains higher levels of the hormone.
Yet for an award-winning 100% natural milk product that has been made and sold in the Republic of Ireland for 10 years, where it can be found on the shelves of SuperValu, Centra, Dunnes and Aldi, you might wonder why you've never heard of it before.
But it's a testament to the simple power of a good product rebranding exercise backed up by a well-executed digital media marketing push and a strong relationship with its loyal customer base that the profile of this North Cork-made product is starting to rise.
And the company is also looking at export markets for its product, including Northern Ireland.
Lullaby Milk is made on Ardrahan Farm in Kanturk, once well known for its artisan farmhouse cheese, and which today is run by Gerald and Julian Burns.
The origins of the product stretch back to the early Noughties, when Gerald's father Eugene came across it while travelling Europe marketing the family cheese business, and later discovered the research of Finnish professor Maija Valtonen, who studied the effects of melatonin-rich milk and sleep disorders.
Unfortunately he passed away shortly after that, and it was only after Gerald finished college and returned to the farm that the idea of producing the milk was revived.
"I just started getting up earlier and taking milk straight from the cows and gave it to a few family and friends and a few different people, maybe eight or 10 people who we knew personally had trouble sleeping, and all reports came back said that it helped, so I said 'There must be something behind this'," Gerald says.
The next phase involved persuading Professor Valtonen to come over and inspect the farm with a view to giving them the licence to produce the milk in Ireland.
This took longer than they expected as the professor, who had done all the science behind the production of the melatonin-rich milk and its benefits, had been moving to protect the intellectual property behind it after discovering incidences where others had plagiarised her work and then falsely claimed to have invented the product.
But she finally came over in 2008 and granted them a licence.
"She just came over and inspected what we're doing and she gave me a few pointers in terms of how to maximise the natural levels of melatonin and we took it from there."
Naturally, the job of milking the cows in the small hours of the morning is a bit of a graft, requiring a 2-3am start so that the milk can be sent to North Cork Co-Op creamery by 5am, and be bottled and on the way to the shops by 6am.
"So it's as fresh as you could wish to have it, and that's really down to the North Cork co-op; we're just so lucky to have them."
Initially the product sold in a half-litre cartons and within a few months it was advised to switch to one-litre cartons because it couldn't keep up demand.
Gerald also discovered that it would sell particularly well in certain pockets of the country, such as the northside of Dublin.
"The only reason that anybody could give us the reason for it being such a good seller there was the fact that a lot of people were on shift work and they just found it excellent for when they came off shift for getting to sleep."
However, things nearly ground to a halt when the Celtic Tiger bit back. Having seen how so many other equally solid businesses had just sunk, Gerald was thinking seriously one day about pulling the plug on Lullaby Milk, when a customer rang.
"She was from Kildare and it was literally a case of, if she rang with a complaint I would say we would have finished with it," says Gerald.
"Well she just rang singing the praises. They had bought the milk on the Friday, they gave it to their children before bedtime, and she said it was the first time in three-and-a-half years that her husband and herself had a quiet house and they actually slept."
It was a timely reminder of the potential of the product, but things needed to change.
It was around this time that Julian returned from four years of travelling and was looking for work, so Gerald suggested that she have a go at taking over the marketing of Lullaby Milk.
It turned out to be an inspired move.
"She started with social media and she started with the marketing and she really put a massive push behind us, and I'd say within the space of about maybe six months, you could see a massive turnaround in it again."
The couple were always confident it would sell, and still have work to do to achieve its full sales potential, but the underlying demand was hard to ignore.
"I get the easy job now," says Gerald. "I just get to milk the cows and make sure that it's down to the co-op in time - it's Julian that has the real hard work after that because she does all the marketing, social media, and replying to customers."
In 2014 they rebranded and relaunched the product. Part of the rationale was that Ardrahan Farm was still well known for the farmhouse cheese that Gerald's late father made and that this led to branding confusion.
The new bolder design and colours on the carton were also much more distinctive than other brands, making it easier to pick out on the shelves.
The couple also won a place on the 'Grow with Aldi' programme last year, "which just gave us a massive, massive bonus", and also won space on the shelves of Dunnes Stores.
The product also picked up some awards, including best artisan product at the Blas na hEireann awards in 2015 and an Irish Quality Food award in 2017, but it's the testimonies from happy customers that mean a good deal more, including from mothers of children with autism or ADHD, pregnant women, shift workers.
And he's still remembers well the time when he forgot to bring home a carton of Lullaby Milk for his two-year-old son Oisin, which led to a long night.
With a solid Irish distribution, the next phase in the company's development will be on export markets, said Gerald, including Northern Ireland, Britain and further afield, including the US and Canada.
Of course, given the short shelf-life of the product, they are now having to look at different options for supplying the milk to these markets.
Last year they won an innovation grant and worked closely with Tim Yeomans of the Institute of Technology Tralee's applied biotech centre.
"We want to see if the melatonin will remain in powder form when it's freeze dried, so ultimately what we'll be looking to in the future is trying to freeze dry it and make into in powder form."
If they manage this successfully, then a bit of expansion is clearly on the cards.