This SARE-funded project lists three primary objectives:
1. Conduct market research related to the niche-market potential for artisan cheeses that are produced on pasture-based farms. This will include surveys of retail cheese buyers, consumer focus groups, product development and testing and test marketing.
2. Develop product identity linked to pasture-based farms (label development) to differentiate practices of grass-based dairy farmers from intensive dairy systems. The project members are working on the premise that consumers are interested in foods that are healthful, and they have a parallel interest in hand-made or artisan-style cheeses. A value-added dairy product based on pastures, they note, could improve profitability of grass-based dairy farms and, if successful, could work nationwide.
3. Conduct test marketing for a newly developed cheese. Again, participants presume that consumers may choose foods and pay higher prices for foods that have a brand image of quality and authenticity linked to sustainable production.
Telephone and focus group interviews and in-store sampling assessed the shopping habits and opinions of specialty (artisan) cheese consumers. Forty-seven telephone interviews were conducted, 34 people completed the focus group process and 36 people participated in the in-store sampling.
Telephone surveys indicated that more than a third of respondents buy cheese weekly and nearly half said specialist cheeses comprise 75% of their purchases. They buy European specialty cheeses most frequently (57%), followed by those from California (32%) and the rest of the United States (11%).
Focus group established that packaging has little influence on purchase decisions, but consumers like to sample an unknown cheese before they buy it and rely on sales staff for information about the cheeses.
Further, if cheesemakers are selling through a distributor, they should educate the distributor about their product and conduct in-store demonstrations when possible. If cheese is sold in individual packages rather than cut from a wheel, packing will help a consumer identify known brands, but consumers will not select a cheese based on packaging alone. In-store displays, like chalkboards and case cards, will influence purchases and should contain information about the cheesemakers (including their names) and taste characteristics of the cheese.
The project team learned a number of characteristics (valuable to others considering marketing projects) about the buying behavior of consumers and their attitudes toward food in general from their telephone interviews and focus groups (specific results of the surveys are detailed at the end of this results section).
From the focus group, they learned that although price is not a major factor in purchases, consumers will not buy premium-priced cheese without sampling. Buyers of such cheese rely on the deli/cheese staff for recommendations and view cheese buying as an education process. They like unlimited sampling in an unhurried environment, and they consider themselves food experimenters.
Store staff can have a big impact on sales, especially if they provide good service and are knowledgeable. Packaging is less important in driving sales than the customers’ being able to taste the cheese and receive sales staff recommendations and background on the cheese itself. By the same token, when dealing with distributors, producers should educate them about the product and conduct in-store demonstrations when possible.
The project team notes that artisan cheese makers should avoid selling prepackaged cheese alongside commodity cheeses. Shoppers who browse such areas are price conscious and wary of new products.
Product quality and freshness are far more important than whether a product is organic or sustainable or made locally, although buyers of specialty cheeses often try to support organic, sustainable or local production. Also, foods free of antibiotics and hormones are important to buyers of specialty cheeses.
While project members had hoped for guidance in developing effective brand identity (labels) for their products that would highlight the grass-based, sustainable dairy practices, they found that labeling has less importance to consumers than having enough accurate information to guide purchases. Focus group members said that an effective narrative about the cheeses would influence their purchase even if they had not initially been inclined to buy the product. They suggest an educated store staff or case cards providing information.
Based on the feedback, the SARE project team developed four case-card statements, each offering a different description of a newly developed peppercorn gouda-style cheese. Consumers visiting the specialty cheese counter in specialty grocery stores were asked to select the description that might prompt a purchase. The consumers were also asked to rate the flavor and texture and compare it with other cheeses they currently buy. The statement receiving the highest rating (1.83 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the most influential) said:
“Pedrozo Peppercorn is a Gouda-style cheese, handmade in limited quantities by Tim and Jill Pedrozo. The Pedrozo family ages this cheese over 60 days. This cheese is great as an hors d’oeuvre or on top of a salad.”
Most of the survey respondents said the peppercorn flavor and size were just right, although one in five said there was too little pepper flavor and that the peppercorn size was too large. Still, the cheese had a superior rating compared with most cheese the consumers now buy, and all responding said they would buy the cheese if it were available in their grocery store.
As of mid November 2001, 500 pounds of peppercorn farmstead cheese had been made and sold, with orders for the same amount through the end of the year.
The project participants conducted 47 telephone interviews, yielding the following responses:
1. Percentage of total cheese purchases that are specialty cheeses: 11% said a quarter or less; 24% said a quarter to a half; 17% said a half to three-quarters; and 48% said three-quarters or more.
2. Frequency per month of specialty cheese purchases: 9% said several times a week; 38% said once a week; 49% said fewer than four times a month; and 4% said less than once a month.
3. Total weight of specialty cheese purchased in a typical shopping trip: no one said less than a quarter of a pound; 28% said a quarter to a half a pound; 47% said a half to a full pound; and 26% said more than a pound.
4. Estimated amount of specialty cheese purchased from different regions: 57% of the specialty cheeses purchased are produced in Europe; 32% in California; 11% in other parts of the United States; and 1% from elsewhere.
5. Type of specialty cheeses purchases: 100% purchase cheese made with cows’ milk; 96% purchase goat or sheep cheeses; 98% purchase aged hard cheeses like parmesan, asiago and gouda; 94% purchase veined cheeses like Roquefort, stilton and bleu; 81% purchase soft surface-ripened cheeses like brie and camembert; 68% purchase fresh cheeses like chevre, queso and blanco; and 38% purchase raw milk cheeses.
The 34 people in focus groups had these responses to various statements about food purchases:
1. Buying food locally is very important to 38.2%, important to 38.2% and makes no difference to 17.6%. None felt it was not important, while 5.9% said they don’t think about it.
2. Buying directly from family-owned farms is very important to 14.7%, important to 64.7%, makes no difference to 5.9%, is not important to 11.8% and is not thought about by 2.9%.
3. Buying organic is very important to 21.2%, important to 51.5%, makes no difference to 15.2% and is not important to 12.1%. There were no respondents who don’t think about it.
4. Buying food produced in a sustainable manner is very important to 31.3%, important to 34.4% and not important to 3.1%. Just over 28.1% are neutral on the issue and 3.1% don’t think about it.
5. Buying foods with potential health benefits is very important to 52.9% and important to 41.2%. Only 5.9% were neutral about health benefits and no one found it unimportant or didn’t think about it.
Information from this project will help producers more effectively target their promotional efforts for artisan cheese marketing. It will also help them establish relationships with distributors, who can provide marketing links to retail outlets suitable for their product. Finally, the project can help in determining what kinds of product descriptions and in-store marketing most effectively drive cheese sales.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
The project provided background information for more extensive marketing and product development, helping producers new to the specialty cheese market ensure that their energy is spent in the right kinds of marketing efforts. The participants are currently working with a cheese manufacturer to develop an old milk-manufacturing site into a new product development plant and to build partnerships to create new artisan products locally.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
The project participants note that it takes considerable energy, good will and coordination to conduct in-store demonstration and cheese sampling. For the sensory analysis part of the project, they suggest that a more relaxed setting, where people could focus on the food and not on their shopping lists, would have been easier.
“It would have allowed us to more closely control the way in which the cheese was served (temperature, humidity, time from cutting to consumption) and to give more instructions on how to complete the survey form,” they write in their final report.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Results of the project were presented to regional dairy producers of the northern Sacramento Valley at the North Valley Dairy Day, attended by about 65 people. In February, results were presented to 20 to 25 people at the statewide meeting of artisan cheese producers in Stanislaus County. In April, about 200 people heard about the project at the California Cheese and Butter Association annual meeting in Temecula, Calif.
Results were published in the Spring 2002 Superior California Dairy Review, a cooperative extension newsletter, and they have been submitted to California Agriculture and Grass Farmer magazines.
The producers involved in this project are Anjanette Martin and Paul Martin of Martin Dairy and Paul Schmidt of Schmidt Dairy.