Guest Columns

Cheese Marketing

Dairy in a post-pandemic world

Suzanne Fanning

Suzanne Fanning, chief marketing officer for Wisconsin Cheese and senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

This was an unprecedented year for the dairy industry. While the pandemic brought many challenges, it also accelerated and altered how we work. It was remarkable to watch how the entire industry stepped up over the past 15 months to keep dairy moving forward, to keep milk flowing, to get wholesome dairy products on shelves and to react to the evolving needs of consumers as shopping habits, work habits, eating habits, consumer trends and life in general changed in drastic ways. What do the changes mean for our industry, and what can we expect in a post-pandemic world?

The shifts in consumer behavior are nothing any research analyst could have predicted. The pandemic sped up many of the trends we had expected to come in the next three to five years into a much narrower window of less than six months, including a massive jump in e-commerce sales, food delivery services and online food experiences, not to mention more time spent online and the unexpected shift to cooking at home. All of these things impacted the dairy industry, and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) evolved to respond to the changes and consumer needs.

With consumers turning to purchasing groceries online, we quickly recognized the need to prioritize e-commerce and online shopping platforms and tools. Our team of regional marketing managers worked with some of the biggest retail accounts across the country to provide content, programs and resources needed to grow dairy sales through the explosive online shopping trend. By targeting the loyalty members of some of the largest retailers in the country, we drove eyes to online grocery with branded content, recipes and add-to-cart features — resulting in an average of 50% sales lift year over year. Digital campaigns with the Waze navigation app drove over 7,500 individuals to participating retailers in select regions nationally over a six-week period, resulting in a retail cheese sales lift of up to 30% depending on the region.

In addition, our team put together some of our most successful retail promotions in the organization’s history including the recent Wonders of Wisconsin promotion to celebrate American Cheese Month. This retail promotion was in over 7,000 retailers nationwide and in over 1,200 restaurants. At the end of 2020, all dairy products saw significant sales growth — butter sales were up 22%, cheese sales increased 13%, ice cream sales went up 10% and dairy milk sales posted a gain of 2%.

With people’s lives upended as a result of the pandemic, we saw consumers eating breakfast at home again, which meant more bowls of cereal and cups of coffee, and as a result, meant more milk sales. We also saw more lunches, snacks and dinners at home, which translated to more comfort food, at-home cooking and a demand for all of those other dairy products. As consumers spent more time on their computers and more time in their kitchens, DFW worked to provide exactly what they were looking for online — recipes, videos, cheese boards, cheesemaker stories and other food inspiration. In fact, the Wisconsin Cheese website broke an all-time record for website visits, topping 2.8 million unique visitors.

The isolation of quarantine and work-from-home left many people feeling the need for connection. Once again, DFW was there to address the needs of consumers and cheese fans. Our Cheeselandia community quadrupled in size over the year, and we ramped up efforts to engage with consumers in a new, virtual way via live events. These groundbreaking efforts are helping to boost markets for milk while enhancing Wisconsin’s reputation for crafting the best cheese in the world by driving authentic consumer conversations both online and offline.

For the Cheeselandia community, which is comprised of our most engaged food fanatic fans, we designed a series of monthly virtual events. Thousands of our core consumers nationwide came together on a regular basis to celebrate, taste, talk about and discover new Wisconsin cheeses. We gave guests unparalleled access to cheesemakers, their aging caves, cheese experts and more. We made these events interactive and engaging through chat, breakout sessions and games putting people in the moment and giving them chances to directly interact with cheesemakers and VIP guests. Our community was recognized by Adweek as Influencer Program of the Year. Companies recognized in other categories were giants like Proctor & Gamble, Nike, Peloton and Zoom.

Throughout 2020 we reached over 28,000 people through virtual events and shipped over 5,500 custom cheese deliveries allowing us to get cheese in mouths of more people than we could reach through live events. We were also able to team up with local breweries, restaurant partners like Culver’s and celebrities like actor and comedian Nick Offerman. Survey results showed events were effective with 4.99/5 attendees reporting they were “likely to purchase Wisconsin cheese” and 4.98/5 “would recommend Wisconsin cheese to a friend.”

Our virtual events did not stop with consumers, as we hosted not only virtual buyers missions for retailers but also special VIP classes for key buyers on affinage and VIP cooking demonstrations with a winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Now that we’ve passed the year mark of the pandemic and with millions of Americans still working from home, we’re seeing just a 2.8% decrease in retail cheese purchases so far this year compared to last year.

Considering how much they increased last spring while consumers panicked to pack their pantries, that decrease isn’t a surprise. The most promising news may be that we’re seeing 10.3% volume sales growth for cheese in 2021 compared to 2019.

In the midst of a very difficult year, consumers rediscovered their love for real dairy, returned to homemade comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, indulged on decadent cheese boards and came together virtually to celebrate dairy as a community. We strengthened key business skills, increased core capabilities to grow e-commerce sales and enhanced important relationships. While vaccines ramp up and states continue opening up, we’ll work to build on the momentum the dairy industry has seen under this year of challenging circumstances.


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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