Holy Cow...are Irish cheese brands locked in a battle of sameness?

The one certainty in Ireland it that it rains most of the time. The good thing about it is that the grass is greener & the cows are big & healthy.

Because of it …we produce some of the best milk & cheese products in the world.

One of my favourite everyday snack cheeses is Dubliner (ironically made by Carbery in West Cork) It’s crumbly and has a strong, rather acquired taste that’s hard to describe in words…

 New Dubliner website 

New Dubliner website 

Do you have a cheese that you really love? A cheese that you religiously buy each week from your local supermarket?

In 2010 Bord Bia (The Irish Food Board) did a piece of research & asked cheese customers the following rather leading question..

Did you buy the same brand of cheese that you intended before you went into the store?”

  • 75% of us said YES
  • 16% of us said NO
  • 9% of us said we had ‘no cheese brand in mind’

One of the most revealing insights from the research was “Many of the cheese shoppers we spoke to described how shopping the category is like looking at a yellow wall” With retailers creating their ‘own brands’ the cheese sector has started to look ‘homogenous’…

“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  Willie Nelson

So if cheese is all starting to look the same what can the companies do to change the game for their brands? With such high quality milk why can’t we create cheese brands that become as well known as Guinness or Jameson Irish Whiskey.

The answer lies in following 2 simple rules that you won’t find in any marketing text book. It’s been used by ad agencies since the arrival of Mad Men and you can apply it to your business too..

Rule 1: Identify the rules of your category

Never forget that customers have choices and all brands operate in the context of a category. It’s important to think of a category as something that not only sits on a shelf but also sits inside people’s heads.

In the Cheese sector we can see that Irish cheese brands are locked in a ‘battle of sameness’

  • All of them speak to “Irishness’ in their branding
  • All are named after places Chareleville, Dubliner, Kilmeaden, Kerry Low Low, Galtee, Mitchelstown 
  • Most of them are yellow cheddar cheese
  • Products shapes & sizes mimic each other
  • Packaging design & colour is also very similar to one another
  • Pricing is pretty much on par
  • They’re all trying to ‘interrupt’ the ‘price conscious Irish shopper’  at point of sale by catchy POS to get them to switch brands

Granted there have been tactical innovations like zip lock bags, pre-sliced or grated cheese & product extensions like ‘Lite’ cheeses for healthy customers. The only problem is that these ‘innovations’ are easily copied and your advantage goes out the window.

The Cheese sector is horribly stuck in a spiral of managing their brands based upon what their competitors are doing.

In fairness to cheese, all industries suffer from the same dilemma. Too much time is spent conforming & complying with the norms, conventions & behaviours of our sector that we become just the same as everyone else. The time and money invested on innovation & creativity also doesn't fit into the marketing budget so it's ignored.

The problem extends to only hiring people who  have worked in the ‘cheese sector’ or only working with agencies with highly prized ‘cheese sector’ experience or have won ‘cheese sector’ awards.

Companies can become so consumed with what their competitors are up to that they fail to differentiate and make themselves desirable over other choices. 
 Branding is also seen as design = styling... a focus on look & feel rather than the ability to disrupt & innovate within the category.

The natural tendency then is to jump into tactical advertising & promotions as a way to ‘entice’ or people to buy their products.

 Cows with personality in West Cork

Cows with personality in West Cork

Rule 2: Now break all the rules 

In a way marketers have become too compliant – ticking the boxes, following the ‘correct process’ managing the budget but creating brands that are bland and boring.

So we need more flavour….more marketers who can see outside the standard paradigm of an industry and have the courage to change things.

When an industry becomes too compliant or homogenous this also creates fantastic opportunities for new entrants or existing players brave enough change the game.

Once you understand the rules & conventions of your category you can start systematically breaking them. Not just for the sake of being different but to create new innovation that surprises, delights and adds value to your customers.

Dick Fosbury stunned the athletics world at the Olympics in 1968 by high jumping upside down. Instead of following the conventional paradigm and jumping stomach first over the bar, he jumped back first and ended up winning gold and setting a new world record.

Significant breakthrough & gain only comes when you take the unconventional path. It starts with challenging the norm of your category but should go further to even challenging the norms of your culture – as this is what will really get you noticed and talked about.

So imagine if one of our Irish cheese companies decided to create a crazy new cheese.

Let’s push the boat out and ask What if?

What if…

  • we created a new brand called Holy Cow Cheese – the holiest of cheese?!
  • all our cheese had giant holes with a heavenly texture & flavour?
  • we decided we didn't want the whole market...just mom”s & kids...because they make all the food decisions anyway?
  • we mixed up the flavours – moved from traditional to exciting – stuff like Mango Cheese, Choriso Cheese, Sun-dried Tomato Cheese, Nuts n’ Cheese?
  • the packaging was in different sizes including Nibbles for kid’s lunch boxes & people on the go?
  • we created a cast of Characters including Holy Cow and his arch enemy Maverick Mouse locked in an epic quest for the best cheese 
  • every element of the product design & packaging was more innovative & imaginative than any other existing cheese maker
  • we made it so desirable that people all over the world wanted more and more Holy Cow cheese from Ireland...
 Holy Cow Cheese - a cut above the rest..

Holy Cow Cheese - a cut above the rest..

Now this has taken us 10 minutes of creative thinking.You can see that good marketing isn't about Digital Marketing or tricks to get people to buy more stuff.

You may have your own ideas for Ireland’s next revolutionary cheese brand – which we’d love to hear about..

Business is about risk & reward. Only marketers who embrace risk will be able to disrupt categories in a way that leads to healthy innovation, more meaningful value and the creation of  exciting new products.

We URGE you to shake things up and become the undisputed champion of your category..