U.S. Cheesemakers Seek New Strategies
MADISON, Wis. — Sampling, whether at trade shows, supermarkets, farmer’s markets, or festivals, is a key component of marketing cheese. But with current safety restrictions and the cancellation of large events, these traditional opportunities for cheesemakers to put cheese into potential buyers’ mouths have all but dissolved.
“Unfortunately the COVID-19 crisis has really limited our access to customers,” says Michelle Stuyt, sales, and marketing executive, Stuyt Dairy Farmstead Cheese Co. LLC, Escalon, California. “We rely heavily on face-to-face interactions not only with our customers but with deli managers and cheesemongers.”
Without the opportunity to be in stores doing demos, Stuyt Dairy relies on deli managers and cheesemongers to help sell its local California cheese, Stuyt says.
“Providing guests with in-store demos to taste the product and hear our story through our eyes we feel is really important. Not only does it give the guest the opportunity to sample our products, but it gives an opportunity to ask questions about ingredients, our staff, goals, etc.,” she says.
“With that being said, sampling sells — the biggest impact has been the absence of sampling in stores and farmer’s markets.”
While sampling may not be an option, many outdoor farmer’s markets still are open, and Stuyt Dairy is taking advantage of these to make its cheeses more visible and accessible.
“This year we have taken on so many new farmer’s markets just to try and reach new customers,” Stuyt says. “For farmer’s markets specifically, we have cut our cheese wedges a little differently to make purchases more affordable and appealing. Furthermore, we have the ability to offer discounts as well as promotions that customers would not otherwise get in the grocery store. Our goal is to generate more incentive in hopes that they will return.”
The producer-funded Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW), which works to promote Wisconsin cheese and dairy products, has pivoted from traditional in-store demos to increase its emphasis on supporting more of its digital and virtual tactics for marketing cheese.
“We have an entire playbook of content and assets to promote digitally on retailer e-commerce sites, websites and social channels including recipe videos or Proudly Wisconsin Cheese landing pages,” says Rich Mende, vice president of retail programs, DFW. “We have a new Taste of Wisconsin Cheese virtual event kit to help retailers host their own online sampling event. We have introduced Proudly Wisconsin Virtual Buyers Meetings to effectively connect retailers to Wisconsin cheesemakers and plan for new items and promotions that have been extremely successful.”
Mende notes that DFW does have retail partners who are experimenting with sampling and planning sampling for the holiday season using new, safer methods like individually wrapped or cupped samples and having the demo person stand behind a Plexiglas shield. This year DFW also has added new in-store and online materials for promoting cheeses made by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, where shoppers can learn more about these master craftsmen and craftswomen behind award-winning cheeses in their local store.
“DFW helps support sampling multiple Wisconsin cheese brands with our branded materials and will work with retailers planning safe sampling and demo events,” Mende says.
Rumiano Cheese Co., Willows, California, has found beyond the initial supply and demand shock that came from the COVID crisis, the long-term challenge has been the loss of face-to-face contact with retailers and consumers through food shows, meetings, and demos. With these challenges, the business has had to think outside of the box when working with customers, says Jillian Casacca, sales associate, Rumiano Cheese.
“Although we can’t be there to talk them through a tasting, we can still provide them an experience, and right to their front door. We have relied on shipping sample kits for various customers. There are a number of ways we’ve been able to get creative and personalize the cheeses, pairings, and materials in the sample kits.”
Rumiano Cheese also has participated in various virtual trade shows, which have brought an interesting tactic and perspective to the table, Casacca says, adding that there are pros and cons to this format.
“Certainly it makes it more challenging. With food, especially cheese, you are selling an experience — the taste, texture, flavor, and quality of the product,” she says. “Some of the formats place you at the mercy of interested buyers. An upside to one of the formats in particular is getting one-on-one time with small groups of sales teams. This allows you to leave an impression with each of their sales team members, not just those that pass your booth. You also have their undivided attention and can share more of your heritage and brand attributes.”
DFW notes that many of the trade shows it had planned to participate in have been canceled, though it is preparing for more virtual show formats this next year.
“As the 2021 show season kicks off, we’re expecting some great opportunities with major shows going virtual, and we’re preparing to make the new platform work hard for our cheesemakers and retail customers,” says Chris Kuske Riese, vice president of channel marketing, DFW. “In the meantime, our Proudly Wisconsin Virtual Buyer Meetings have been extremely successful introducing retailers to Wisconsin cheesemakers and planning for new items and promotions.”
Schuman Cheese, Fairfield, New Jersey, will participate in the upcoming Specialty Food Association Live! virtual event Sept. 21-24, where members will display their products in virtual showcases and stand ready to meet with potential buyers. It will unveil new specialty products, including Cello Pumpkin Spice-Rubbed Fontal and Cello Snack Packs, and showcase other products and brands.
“It’s kind of uncharted territory. At the Fancy Food Shows, thousands of people were going into convention halls with hundreds of vendors and samples everywhere,” says Mike Currie, director of marketing, Schuman Cheese. “At a live event, everyone is coming by, grabbing cheeses, and you want to talk and get feedback. In the virtual setting, you’re more likely to talk to people who are category buyers, a big reason we do trade shows. There are probably fewer leads, but higher-quality leads.”
Cheesemakers from Schuman Cheese is also working on more online marketing and promotions, including an upcoming chatbox through Facebook Messenger that will connect consumers with a virtual cheesemonger to suggest specialty cheeses and pairings, and mini sweepstakes on social media where the company will send free cheese to fans who engage.
In addition to virtual shows and promotions, businesses are finding creative ways to invite consumers to try their products while having fun. The Vermont Cheese Council, which represents 55 cheesemaker members, this week launched “The Hunt,” a scavenger hunt across the state. Clue packets for various regions of the state are available at vtcheese.com/hunt, and the clues lead players to local cheeses as well as historic sites, farms, and outdoor trail systems. The council also has teamed up with area wineries, breweries, and orchards that are featured in The Hunt. Winners will be placed in a drawing to receive prize baskets with artisan cheeses, lodging certificates, state park memberships, and other items.
“Many cheesemakers are not sampling cheese now, and in parallel, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, a very big festival that was scheduled in August, was canceled,” says Marty Mundy, executive director, Vermont Cheese Council. “We had a lot of discussions with members on what can we do to help promote cheese? Is there an alternative to the festival?”
The result of this brainstorming was the scavenger hunt, which the council hoped would appeal to both out-of-state visitors and Vermont residents, similar to the festival. Mundy says she has seen a good response so far from promotions on social media and to the council’s mailing list.
“In our area, people are really bored, and this gives them something to do,” she says. “The Hunt really fit an opportunity that happened to exist, something where we could figure out how to create an experience that fits what our consumer base needs and wants.”
Along with the need to get outdoors and explore, consumers also have been staying at home more, which creates opportunities for them to discover new cheeses through virtual events or on social media to use in recipes.
“Since our customers can’t come to us or sample us, we’ve been trying to get to the customer,” says Vanessa Chang, marketing director at Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, California. “We’ve done a lot of virtual events — partnering with friends in wine, trade groups, and other categories to enliven people’s day to day. We’re also refocusing efforts on our social and digital content, sharing more of what we’re up to so everyone can stay connected.”
Rumiano Cheese also has placed a larger emphasis on its social media platform, Casacca says.
“We have been collaborating on how to create more at-home experiences with our cheese, and with the majority of meals now being cooked at home, showing consumers how to use our cheese to make any meal or snack just a bit more fun,” she says. “Also, how Rumiano can make the current juggling act for parents a little easier — from snacks to new learning opportunities.”
While many cheesemakers would like life to get back to “normal,” Casacca adds that there are opportunities to get creative and find a silver lining in any situation.
“COVID has tested us all, but I have really enjoyed the positives it has brought, too — becoming a larger part of people’s homes and lives, teaching consumers how to get creative with our products and having more ways to give back.”
By Rena Archwamety
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Source: Cheese Market News