When I began writing for the Cheese Reporter a few years back, I warned of an invasion: not the Ruskies, or Fanatics, but of European cheeses. I was wrong. They rose from dominating our specialty cheese cases, to owning our American specialty cheese companies themselves.
The reason we don’t know it when we are being dumb is we need to be a bit smarter than we are to recognize it.
Why people sold probably is as varied as the people. But the fact remains, in the last decade and a half, foreigners have been on a hunt for American producers, even artisan producers, and they have been bagging some big game. In just the last decade and a half the following American cheese companies have been gobbled up:
• Cypress Grove
• Marin French Cheese
• Roth Kase
• Redwood Hill
• Laura Chenel
• White Clover Dairy
• Alto Dairy
• Trega Foods
And it is not just in cheese. According to the statistics published by Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Nestlé owns or is in a joint venture for the seeming American icons Dreyers and Haagen Dazs.
Some of them were lifestyle businesses, created by single owners as an act of love, not to survive for generations into the future. Some of these are friends of mine, and I’m thrilled for their golden parachute. But others of these companies faced long-term entrenched problems, roadblocks to their achieving their real potential or even surviving. Roadblocks that seemed to disappear when American management was replaced with foreign.
the fact remains, in the last decade and a half, foreigners have been on a hunt for American producers, even artisan producers, and they have been bagging some big game.
And the fact remains, particularly in Europe where growth in consumption of dairy products has been flat or falling for decades, and market strategists decided decades ago the opportunity for growth was in the developing world, they have been buying, and they have been making troubled American businesses work. In their eyes, are we considered the developing world by them? It is a scary question, and the usual response is troubling: “at least we kept the jobs.” Why say that? Afraid past management was managing poorly? What do the foreigners do that is different? Why do they make the impossible seem
easy over an over again?
Perhaps we can turn lemons into
lemonade and get a bit smarter so we can see where we’ve been “dumb” For the next couple of columns, I’m going to explore some ideas that might help run things a little better.
I’m going to start with an often discussed, but too often neglected entity called the consumer. Many of us don’t even sell to the people who consume our cheese, so why are they important? We sell to the people who sell to the people who sell to the people who consume the cheese. And, their interests are very different than those of the consumer.
But, the fact remains, the only new money that enters the supply chain from farm to table is the consumer’s money. They pay with their hard-earned cash, and the rest of us shuffle it around and try to keep as much as we can.
And the surprising thing is that very few of us know the first darn thing about how consumers use our products. Oh sure, we know they eat them, but that’s only part of using them. Do they use them for parties? Do they use them in everyday cooking? Only in sandwiches? At their restaurant and don’t even know they are eating your product? Do they use it on meat, vegetables? Why did they buy yours and not the competition? Is it your flavor, texture, easy open package, or is it because the label stands out on the supermarket shelf? Is because their parents bought it? Is what they think of your product relevant, or is it how they use it?
It’s good to know what your costs are, but isn’t that only half the solution? Isn’t direct observation and engaging with each customer that stands between you and the final consumer relevant as well? Can you find that in a financial report?
The following was developed loosely around the ideas of a Dr. Kano, who created a framework for discovering from the customer’s point of view the characteristics that define your product. Every customer along the chain from you to the final consumer. Take a sheet of paper, or a spreadsheet. Make four columns and fill out as below. It is a bit of work, as you can’t guess, but the payoff is incredible: a table of characteristics of your product from the customers point of view:
Type of Customer
Must Have Characteristics
Ease of Use/Performance Characteristics
Delighters: What Are or Could Be
Who You Sell To
Who you sell to and who is the end consumer is pretty clear, you may not know all the intermediate customers from your customer to the consumer. They may include a regional distributor, the local office, the buyer at a store, or the chef of a restaurant, the store employees, or the cook and the waiter, etc. Find out what happens all the way from your loading dock to when your cheese gets consumed and know what the characteristics are that win them over:
You can find some of the answers in the data you have: Customer feedback. People usually complain about the basics, the must haves that get them angry right away if not there.
For each type of customer, find any comments and complaints to find the must-haves.
Must haves include all the things that will piss people off right away if they aren’t there, like flavor, or food safety or an unopenable package for consumers, boxes mislabeled or hard to read, or cheap cardboard for distributors, etc.
Performance and ease of use characteristics are those that over time make people less angry and more satisfied with your product. An easy open package might be an example. Or consistent flavor.
Delighters are those characteristics that just a little bit creates satisfaction. From a customers point of view, they are the unexpected, the fun, the thoughtful surprises. Like great packaging, or recipes that work for consumers, or extra sales information in the box to help clerks in the stores. They are what turn ordinary products into money magnets.
Once you have exhausted your internal records, get out of the building and talk with people, but prepare questions that will help you fill out the form beforehand to not waste time. Speak to your customer to find out who they sell to (making clear it is not to cut them out of the supply chain, of course). Go to where the final consumers are and talk with them. Ask them the right questions to complete the form.
You will in short order get a baseline view of how each customer sees your product and will open up many avenues for improving that experience and winning more sales. You will find that things you thought important aren’t, and things you didn’t are.
The marketing VP of Harley-Davidson pointed out, the one characteristic that defines their product is the sound. Without it, customers wouldn’t buy it. It isn’t always obvious.
Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses, and the owner of the sites learn.managenaturally.com, and the Facebook group Enjoy Cheese. His online course: “Cheese: How to Buy, Store, Taste, Pair, Talk About and Serve”, is available at enjoycheese.net. Dan can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Dan Strongin encourages your comments regarding this column. Comments can be made anonymously to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter
*Comments will remain anonymous.
Cheese Reporter retains the right to publish anonymous comments to
continue the discussion of this editorial. Comments do not necessary
reflect those of Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.