By Rachel Dempsey
Muhammad Ali’s daughter Miya, dressed in an orange vest with the word GOAT written across the back in white, stood just inside the entrance to the Yale Bookstore, greeting Yale students and other customers as they entered the building. Some people walked past her quickly, avoiding eye contact, while others stopped to listen to her describe the product displayed in futuristic silver and orange bags on the table in front of her. No one knew that she was the famous boxer’s daughter. As far as anyone could tell, she was just another of the several orange-clad women giving away samples of GOAT brand snack food last Wednesday to students doing their back-to-school shopping.
The Yale Bookstore is one of five campus booksellers across the country at which the GOAT Food and Beverage Company — where Miya Ali works as an account manager — released its new line of snack foods on Jan. 17, Muhammad Ali’s sixty-fifth birthday. Muhammad Ali endorses the brand — the initials GOAT stand for Greatest of All Time, the boxer’s motto — and it is being marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional snack food. GOAT co-creator Peter Arnell said the line’s cracker mixes and fruit bars help solve the “huge problem” of kids and college students who lack nutritious food options, but experts at Yale warned against celebrity-endorsed products as a panacea for the obesity epidemic, and student reaction to the food was decidedly mixed.
Arnell, chairman of the brand-invention company the Arnell Group, said the GOAT line emerged from a desire to create “great-tasting” food that people could enjoy without having to worry about its nutritional content.
“Are you overweight?” Arnell — who lost 245 pounds himself several years ago — asked a reporter over the phone. “People who are overweight really love it, because they’re used to all this crap they usually get.”
The snacks come in three boxing-themed varieties, called Rumble, Shuffle and Jabs, and contain 150 calories or fewer per serving. The Bookstore has been giving out samples of Shuffle, a cracker mix in varieties including pickle-flavored “Thrill-a Dill-a”, and Rumble, a bar made of puffed rice and dried fruit in such flavors as “Nuts’N’Nana,” described by promotional material as having “the taste of scrumptious banana bread.” The samples are also available for purchase at $1.99 for the single-serving Shuffle and Rumble and $2.99 for a larger-sized bag of Jabs.
Muhammad Ali became involved in the GOAT venture after Arnell, an old friend, called him up a few years ago and asked him to participate. Arnell recalls meeting Ali for the first time nine years ago when a friend, who was also a manager for Ali, arranged for the two to have breakfast together as a birthday gift for Arnell — after which, Arnell said jokingly, “like most people, [Ali] fell madly in love with me.”
Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has had a very active role in all levels of the GOAT enterprise, Arnell said. Ali’s wife Lonnie and Miya, a daughter from a previous relationship, have also been involved in the promotion and development of GOAT. Lonnie Ali has said in interviews that the nutritional dimension of the product is especially important to her husband because of his concern for their 16-year old son, Asaad, who is slightly overweight.
But Yale nutrition experts expressed doubt about the ability of the GOAT food line to have an impact on the national weight crisis. Dr. David Katz, associate professor adjunct of public health and co-founder of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale School of Medicine, said he is suspicious of celebrity health food endorsements in general, which he said tend to be more about “window dressing” than nutritional substance. He said that while he supports the idea of targeting a healthy snack at children, he does not think the GOAT brand is likely to help fix the current obesity problem. People should take nutritional cues from professionals rather than celebrities, he said.
“I don’t really think the world needs another energy bar,” he said. “What I think the world does need is reliable, consistent, trustworthy steadfast guidance to help people make better choices.”
But Arnell remains confident about GOAT’s potential to improve the eating habits of young people. He said that given his observation of the “on-the-go” culture at Yale, he thinks there is a definite market at the university for his products. An architect before he entered the field of marketing, Arnell has collaborated with several professors at the Yale School of Architecture, writing books on architectural theory and history with contributions by Yale professors like Vincent Scully and co-editing a book on Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert Stern.
Over the course of about 30 years of experience at what he deemed “the finest University in the country,” Arnell said he has observed that the pressure of Yale’s environment encourages people to snack. He chose to debut the GOAT brand at Yale — along with the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, Ohio State and Georgia Tech — because he thought the University would be an especially appropriate place for a product that can provide stressed-out students with what he called “nibbly-poo” to get them through a hectic day.
Yale Bookstore management declined to comment on the GOAT promotion, but Joel Friedman, vice president for General Merchandise at Barnes and Noble College Booksellers, said the company often sponsors product promotions at the beginning of the semester, and Barnes and Noble was especially attracted to GOAT’s focus on energy and health, two big trends in marketing. Employees at the Bookstore said that the snacks seemed to be selling relatively well for a new product, and that despite the many free samples available, people were also purchasing the snacks.
Arnell has said the products will be released at around 20 more universities across the country in February.
Dina Mayzlin, an assistant professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management, said the marketing techniques being used by the GOAT brand are classic and very effective, and she “can’t imagine” the product will do badly — although Friedman said Barnes and Noble and GOAT will not begin to analyze sales data until the product has been out for at least a month. The slow roll-out of the brand in a select few markets serves to create buzz, Mayzlin said, and the celebrity endorsement targets the desirable 18-24 demographic, as does the positioning of the product in a place where college students can access it easily.
Students asked to try GOAT samples for the first time had reactions that ran the gamut from “awesome” to “a gross surprise.” Although Arnell said he developed the GOAT product line based on his years of involvement with pop-culture trends and his “awareness of the palate experience and taste experience that people love,” many Yalies expressed doubt at unusual flavors like guacamole and “Big Bad BBQ,” which a brochure said combines the taste of barbeque, corn, peppers, carrots and coleslaw.
While Tom Ginikakis ’09 said the “Hot Picnic Chik!” variety of the Shuffle snack mix — which is meant to taste like “Sunday picnic basket chicken” — was “pretty good” when he first tried it, he liked it less the more he ate.
“I don’t even think it takes that much like chicken,” he said. “It’s just like Chex Mix or something. I have yet to bite into something and say that tastes like something I had for dinner last night.”
But his suitemate Andy Detty ’09 said he thought the “Hot Picnic Chik!” was delicious — especially the small purplish shell-covered peanuts that “looked like Jupiter” — and would seriously consider buying it, as long as it was not too expensive.
Students also had varied reactions to Muhammad Ali’s endorsement of the snacks. Some Yalies, confronted by sample-wielding GOAT employees at the Bookstore, said the boxer’s backing piqued their curiosity about the product, and many reacted with interest upon learning that his daughter stood just feet away. But others, including Sherman Wang ’07, remained skeptical of the Ali seal of approval.