Cheese in China: Focus on children and education

Thursday 11th October 2018
In the developed world our relationships with cheese are quite complex and frequently heritage and household consumption based. Generations of usage, preparation and experimentation have created clear well defined markets for cheese types.

The anglophile markets (UK, Canada, Ireland, South Africa etc) developed to be more cheddar focused, the Central European markets developed a culture of continental cheese (Edam, Gouda, Emmental) and both exported these products as part of their culture, and embedded these in new markets.

However, when we look at some of the larger scale emerging markets, it has become apparent that while they may have a new appetite for cheese, due to perceived health benefits or the westernisation of premium products and categories, they often lack the generational knowledge related to consumption, day part usage, or the multi-functional nature of cheeses as an ingredient to really drive engagement and volume of traditional products.

It is in these areas where cheese companies need to consider what the consumer needs rather than what our companies produce if we are to create stable, scalable markets. It is incumbent on us to identify the real demands of consumers and not just superimpose our assumptions based on past market success.

For example, China has a much more nuanced relationship with cheese than most of us consider. In the main China does not have generational usage of cheeses in westernised formats (Cheddar, Emmental, Brie etc.) Therefore a number of factors, which we often take for granted, are considerable barriers to our potential success.

There is no heritage of table top cheese in our preferred formats, therefore consumers don’t know what to do with it, it is not an inclusion in sandwiches, burgers etc the way it is in the west.

Parents are not feeding it to children or purchasing it as part of a household shop in vast numbers because they don’t fully utilise the product or gain any benefit, bar the status benefit of purchasing a western product. But they themselves are not consuming it because it is not part of their established diet.

Cheese, where known in Asia Pacific, tends to be white, ‘plasticky’ and in small consumable shapes) this makes it more difficult to convince the consumer that the orange/red block is the same product.

The mature markets prefer mature flavours. Our palates respond best to vintage high quality, rich and aromatic flavours and textures. In the undeveloped market these are considered overpowering to the palate and often off-putting. We often try to place products which have taken a hundred years or more to develop, into markets where the palate is only at a ‘year one’ stage.

With this in mind, why would anybody consider trying to move cheese to China? The answer is consumer demand. The Chinese parent sees cheese as a healthy, enriched product which gives their child energy, nutrition, calcium and a host of tangible benefits. They are sophisticated consumers with unsophisticated palates and we need to meet them more than half way. The cheese import market to China for retail is small (38,400 MT in 2018), but this has more than doubled in five years (+108% vs 2013) and with a population of 1.4 billion potential consumers, there has to be a great reason to ignore it.

So how can a company begin to address this difference between consumer demand and product market fit. In short order, we need to feed the generation of today (children) to grow the household consumer of tomorrow. Within two/three generations, if approached correctly we could be looking at one of the largest cheese markets in the world but we need to invest our time and resources in fitting our products to their needs before we introduce them to our more mature portfolio.

Best foot forward: Child centred product design
a. Focus: On children as consumers to grow them as adult household consumers.
b. Snackable formats/small portions: Match the occasions in the school and work day. This also limits wastage and these portions are more likely to be purchased by parents for children - this format will move faster than block.
c. Mild: Early cheese, white, more plastic, less flavour, colour and aroma will fit to this market need.
d. Fortified: Chinese parents buy these products to give their children ‘an advantage’, to generate strength, energy and cognitive resilience. We need clear child and parent-friendly call-outs of product benefits and fortifications.
e. Remain Western: Call out heritage, authenticity, quality and origin factors