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Connecting with your buyer

Edward Zimmerman

Edward Zimmerman is president of The Food Connector, a sales and marketing company focused on the needs of food manufacturers and distributors. He contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

With the Summer Fancy Food Show on hiatus, Cheese Market News provided this special section called “Specialty Spotlight: Connecting with Your Buyer.”

My company, The Food Connector, was not named by accident. Many years ago, before digital was digital, we saw that making connections with food between buyers and sellers, between retailers and consumers and between chefs and diners was a strong urge that has followed humans since cave days. We believed then, and even more strongly now, that connecting is the glue that binds brands to people.

In this COVID reality — how can you connect?

First, what is connection? Dictionary.com defines connecting as “joining or linking things together, especially so as to provide access and communication.” Access and communication — having your product available for purchase and telling the story of WHY it should be purchased.

Second, it is important to think through time frame. In the midst of COVID, the focus on the here and now, the urge to survive, is strong. It needs to be. Fanciful plans and insightful strategy do not matter if your company is forced to close this year. Survival is crucial and many specialty cheese producers are on the edge. We know from recent data that commodity cheeses are selling well based on familiarity, availability and price point.

Cheese is a high-quality protein generally at a lower price than beef, pork and chicken. Definitely less than plant-based foods. With many consumers not working, or because of uncertainty, commodity cheese is a popular choice.

But it is more than just price!

Comfort and familiarity are what people are really buying. Now is the time to position your brand as cozy and reassuring. Messages that join and link your attributes to that comfort are how you remain relevant now.

Connecting with buyers means meeting them where they are. Understand their concerns, provide access and communication, like the definition says. What do distributors, retail consumers, grocery buyers, people eating out and restaurant operators want?

• Food safety

Now is the time to clearly communicate WHAT your company does to ensure the safety of raw materials, employees and supply chain. Here are some suggestions:

• Clear, concise messages on your website.

• Repeated messages on social media.

• Case inserts for retail products. Yes, a printed piece of paper that lays out in some detail the steps you take everyday in your plant. These printed inserts reinforce to your employees that you are serious. In a retail environment, you are training dairy case stockers and cheese mongers. When customers ask for recommendations, your company will be top-of-mind regarding food safety. In the short term, food safety stands alongside other attributes, like organic or grass-fed.

• Ditto printed inserts for foodservice. Chefs and others will see that you are serious about safety, which will reinforce your brand. These messages may well carry over to counter staff, online ordering teams and servers who can influence promoting your products to consumers.

• Selection

Cooking and eating at home is the new normal. Now is the time to think how your product can be used as an ingredient.

• Encourage recipe uses that feature your cheese on your website and social media.

• Create wine and cheese pairings and promote these for summer picnics or backyard dining.

• Determine if your product can be marketed in an individually wrapped format.

• Accentuate snacking; sell your product in smaller pieces, wrapped for grab and go.

• Support your distributors. Specialty cheese sales are down in this limited sales environment; make sure that your distributors feature your products.

• Limit what you sell. If you offer multiple cheeses, sizes and pack sizes, create focus so it is easier to buy and market your products.

• Be the comfort

Distributors, retailers and chefs are people, too. Many people are worried for their health, the health of their business and their families and coworkers’ well-being. How does your product connect with comfort?

• Baking is a craze. Create messages on websites and social channels that offer your product as an ingredient in baking.

• Nostalgia is popular. Position your product as a familiar friend, one that “grandma” would have selected.

• Be the cheese in upscale mac and cheese — create ways to stay top-of-mind. A little flavor goes a long way.

• Sell direct to consumer

Cheese companies I follow message me often to buy direct. This strategy offers short-term benefits but is not easy or free.

• Test before committing. Send cheese to yourself to see the results. Not all cheeses travel well. The more you are like Parmesan and the less like fresh Mozzarella in a water-packed cup, the better.

• When testing, assume the worst, not the best-case scenario.

• Do not ship after Wednesday.

• Be sensitive to over-packaging. This is counter-intuitive, as lots of packing materials, dry ice or ice packs protect your product in shipping, but upscale consumers will bristle at too much. Again, test different methods to hit that happy medium.

• Get help on social media and online selling. Being a great cheesemaker does not make you great at e commerce.

Make no mistake, these are difficult times. Survival is not guaranteed and reading a thousand-word article in a trade publication will not solve your problems. In difficult circumstances, companies hire experts for advice.

There are no experts for the challenges cheesemakers face.

You started your business or joined a cheese company because you thought you had a new product, a new idea to offer or a new solution to an old problem. Go back to that. You are the expert in your business — your creativity, your entrepreneurship, your ability to take a measured risk is the key ingredient your company needs now.

This section and this article are about how to connect to buyers. The answer — connect to yourself, you are a consumer, too. You have fears, you worry for your health and the health of others and the economy. What do you need? Figure that out and offer to others and your company will prosper.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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