Multiple tracks lead to sales of Wisconsin cheese

Ray Mueller

GREEN BAY – In a competitive market where there's often a battle between quality and price, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's national retail and foodservice promotion program for cheese relies on numerous types of appeals to customers and cooperative ventures in the marketplace.

Kirk Scott

Details on those points were reviewed by Kirk Scott, the WMMB's director of retail sales, at the 2016 regional conference for representatives of county dairy promotion groups. He has 25 years of experience in consumer marketing with several entities, including nearly two years with the WMMB.

Scott oversees the WMMB's eight regional retail marketing managers. He explained that they work directly with thousands of retail outlets, distributors and chefs to create an awareness of Wisconsin brand of cheese in order to boost sales.

Matchmaking for cheese sales

The regional marketing managers strive to act as matchmakers to convince consumers to recognize Wisconsin as the top source in the nation for quality cheeses, Scott indicated. He said there was a major increase in the promotional activities for foodservice, restaurants and dairy case displays during 2016.

In addition to the marketing challenges posed by geography, there's often a struggle between price and quality, he said. To cope with those challenges, he added messages about “the milk, the heritage and the standards” are used to persuade consumers that cheese from Wisconsin is their best choice.

To emphasize the quality of Wisconsin cheeses, attention is given to the numerous high placings in multiple cheese contests, Scott remarked. He noted Wisconsin is only state that requires a licensed cheesemaker must be on-site when cheese is made.

Scott pointed out that this authenticity is conveyed by the requirement that only cheese manufactured in the state is eligible to carry the identifying Wisconsin logo. For fluid milk, the requirement is that it was produced in the state.

Marketing activities

A Minnesota food distributor which serves nearly 2,000 stores carries 28 cheeses with a Wisconsin identity, Scott said. Market research indicates that this identity (the logo) increases the sales by 6 percent.

Wisconsin-based company names such as Sargento and BelGioioso also attract cheese buyers, Scott continued. With store brands, an awareness that the cheese came from Wisconsin also enhances sales.

Within supermarkets, the deli counter is often the easiest place for a Wisconsin cheese promotion, he disclosed. At dairy cases, in-store displays and signage convey the message.

Promotional events

While June Dairy Month is an obvious attention-getter, the WMMB has 85 different time-related themes available for retailers throughout the United States (the WMMB doesn't engage in international promotions), Scott said. Those time-themed promotions are supplemented with a choice of 28 recipes.

Cross promotions for the sales of cheese and accompanying foods are another standard practice, he said. The most frequent partners in those promotions are bread, wine and beer.

The grilled cheese recipe showdown contest has become a national event, Scott reported. The entry period for 2017 opens March 30. Cheese carving at special events such as grand openings or anniversary celebrations continues to draw crowds, he added.

Special attractions

At five Stew Leonard's supermarkets in the New York area, a singing Miss Diva cheese amitronic puppet is a popular attraction, Scott reported. It has a special appeal to children, who merely need to tap a red button to start Miss Diva's performance, he noted.

Mammoth cheeses, all made at Henning's Cheese at rural Kiel in Manitowoc County, serve as a promotional event at The Anderson's stores in Ohio, Scott stated. He said the 4,800-pound Cheddar mammoth sold out in 24 hours in 2016, setting the stage for the arrival of a 5,600 pound mammoth in 2017.

In the foodservice sector, the WMMB is a connection for sales of Wisconsin cheese with the Five Star pizza chain in Florida, Cousins Subs, Giordano's in Chicago, the Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom with more than 150 outlets in 26 states and the Chicago-based Cooper's Hawk winery and restaurant chain with 28 outlets in eight states, Scott said. In Wisconsin and beyond, Culver's is a major user and promoter of the state's dairy products.

Scott noted a national Cheese Curds Day was held Oct. 15. As evidence of their growing popularity, cheese curds are outselling French fries at A&W restaurants.