Some hallmark Swiss cheeses may disappear from foreign supermarket shelves if certain forecasts are right. Cheaper “knock-offs” and a lack of brand identity are to blame, but some cheesemakers have found the secret to success lies on their doorstep.
In a recent edition of the Swiss agricultural newspaper Der Landfreund, marketing experts predicted the disappearance of cheeses like Emmentaler, Tilsiter and Sbrinz from foreign markets if they don’t set themselves apart from the competition and turn around negative export trends.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, customers in Switzerland’s largest foreign markets – Germany, France and Italy – started shopping much more on price, and the Swiss brands struggled to keep up.
Take the example of Emmentaler. According to Konrad Heusser, who runs the Mundig Swiss cheese export business, producers decided to export their youngest possible cheese - “just four months old” – only for it to be “overwhelmed” by the competition. “When cheese is so young the taste difference isn’t so big, and then it’s only about the price.”
As a result, he says: “Consumers abroad didn’t understand the story behind the product.”
Today, countless Emmentaler-like cheeses are available abroad under the label ‘Swiss cheese’ – some produced by Swiss dairy giant Emmi. A locally made Gruyère in the US state of Wisconsin, for example, sells for two-thirds the price of the imported Swiss version. Stagnant or declining export data for certain Swiss brands shows the fallout.
So how is a Swiss cheesemaker, whose products are inherently more expensive, supposed to compete against global brands that make similar cheeses? Appeal to the discerning customer, advises Philippe Bobin, who produces Brie de Meaux, a soft cheese that gets its name from the French town of Meaux just to the east of Paris.
“The clients know the difference,” he insists. “Technology has its limits. You can make loads of industrial brie, but since you can’t treat it like a brie made by hand, you don’t end up with the same product.”
Bobin and his fellow Brie de Meaux producers make up the “Brotherhood of Brie de Meaux”, an ancient and hyper-local organisation that represents and celebrates the cheese’s artisanal and traditional roots. The brotherhood’s role is to preserve traditions around the cheese and communicate its value as a carefully crafted product with a long and storied history.
“In France there are still small producers that kept their identities and that’s what makes the difference,” Bobin says. “And the producers are very well-developed, they’ve made a name for themselves in the area. That’s what’s attractive.”
“Switzerland communicates on the level of ‘Swiss cheese’, but if you do that, you oversimplify it and lose the local identity,” he observes.
“The French are incredible cheese chauvinists,” laughs Heusser. He points out they eat mostly French cheeses, making it a more difficult export market for the Swiss and a much more domestically focused one for French cheesemakers. But he does believe Switzerland could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to setting products apart from the competition – and probably should have done so a while ago.
Appenzeller, a brand from eastern Switzerland, is trying to set itself apart by advertising the product’s ‘secret recipe’ and status as the “spiciest cheese in Switzerland”. Advertisements aimed specifically at the neighbouring German export market, as well as a state-of-the-art visitors’ centre in the Appenzell region, are the backbones of the campaign.
However, Appenzeller producers have yet to see big export results from this marketing push; although they saw a boost in past years, in 2012, exports of the cheese fell to their lowest level since 2008, according to figures from Switzerland Cheese Marketing (see above graphic).
The parmesan wars
For exporters of the Italian cheese parmigiano reggiano, their local production chain is the central part of every conversation with customers. With Italy’s cheese market saturated and pressured by economic woes, those behind the brand are working hard to grow exports every year, and lately, they’ve succeeded. But, like struggling Swiss cheese brands, their biggest fight is the war on generics.
“The question of generics is a very serious one, but we have seen that laws to maintain the protected labels are the thing that has really worked,” says Igino Morini of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium. Laws in the European Union have gone a long way towards protecting his label – and making sure the term “parmesan” can only be applied to true parmigiano-reggiano.
Further afield, though, label protection has proven more difficult. In the United States, “parmesan” is considered a generic term, despite legal efforts by the parmigiano reggiano association to trademark the label. The same is true in the emerging Chinese market, where customers not used to dairy products shop largely on price and end up with run-of-the-mill “parmesan cheese” from New Zealand instead of true parmigiano reggiano.
Diversifying and localising
If they can’t win the label battle outside of Europe, Morini says his brand’s export success depends on educating customers about what makes parmigiano reggiano unique, for example through direct campaigns and special events in supermarkets and other points of sale.
Though he’s operating on a much smaller scale, Christian Simmen, who runs the Sennerei Nufenen cheese cooperative in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, has found that similar customer education strategies worked well in his first year of exporting his specialty products to Germany.
Until ten years ago, his cooperative produced all of its cheese for the Swiss wholesale market, working with Emmi and other distributors. Then, they slowly began building up a unique product line, mostly for export. Today, about 60 per cent of the cheeses they make are for their own distribution, and 40 per cent go to Emmi.
“We started out very small in a specialty niche,” says Simmen. “We make organic products all sourced regionally, and the whole marketing of the product and telling the story behind it is linked to the fact that all the milk we use comes from the area’s Alpine regions. And our exports have grown, bit by bit, every year.”
Heusser has noticed a number of cheesemakers in Switzerland adopting strategies similar to Simmen’s; they might produce a significant portion of their cheese for a larger label or distributor, but “almost every cheesemaker makes another cheese that they sell very regionally or export internationally”.
“We work with a cheesemaker who makes Appenzell cheese but also
makes a slightly similar product that’s ripened longer with more raw milk, and that’s selling extremely well, especially in the US,” Heusser says. “We can’t meet the demand for that cheese.”
Such successes make Heusser cautiously optimistic about the future of the Swiss cheese market; an overall slight export increase in 2012 has been attributed to the fact that niche and artisan products are finding their way into new markets.
And producers of struggling brands like Emmentaler have not turned a blind eye to the problems they face and are trying to play catch-up. On July 1, 2013, new volume controls for Emmentaler went into effect, halving each cheesemaker’s production to render the product more unique and keep the market from becoming flooded. Emmentaler has also made a special effort to appeal to a younger domestic population, with special cheeses for the Federal Alpine Games Festival and similar events.
But is it all too late to save the brands that have, for so long, formed the basis of Swiss cheese exports? The French offer a bit of encouragement.
“I believe that it’s never too late,” says Bobin. “You have to push the origins of the milk, the place where the cheese comes from, in the mountains. You have to work on seasonal factors, what the animals are like, explain what distinguishes the product. You have to communicate it.”