Land O’Lakes has made cheddar cheese for decades, but for most of that time it was only sold as a commercial ingredient to other businesses, not as a retail item for consumers.
However, over the last couple of years, a macro-shift has been underway in the dairy case cheese segment. Regional brands are seeing new opportunities as consumers focus more on company values in addition to their lines of products.
Building on this trend, Land O’Lakes launched an array of dairy case cheese offerings for retail consumption back in November 2021. While we’re a new entrant to the category, the strength of the Land O Lakes brand provided a prime opportunity and easy access point for our product.
“Consumers recognize our brand. Because of our ubiquity with both butter and cheese, consumers thought we offered cheese in the dairy aisle even before we launched,” says Ilene Rauscher, Dairy Case Cheese Marketing Manager. “That ‘ghost awareness’ was right up there with awareness of the cheese category leaders. In the consumer’s mind, we were already competitive in a category in which we weren’t participating.”
Now, a little more than a year and a half after that initial launch, distribution of dairy case cheese offerings from Land O’Lakes is expanding quickly in the Midwest and Northeast. We are rapidly solidifying a new outlet for member milk and opening new avenues to build an even stronger consumer base.
Even though the brand had momentum already built in from Day 1, entering a large category like dairy case cheese carries some inherent risk. It’s expensive to launch a new product, and making sure the product has sufficient support and marketing is critical to ensuring its success. Since November 2021, Land O’Lakes has been deliberate in how and where it introduces new products into the lineup, beginning in the Midwest and Northeast, where our brand is the strongest.
“Our approach to innovation in Dairy Foods has been to start small. We test and learn how to build a strong base before expanding further,” Ilene says. “Dairy case cheese is a great opportunity for our members and the enterprise, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure our launch into the category is a success.”
The dairy case cheese category is divided into different subcategories, including shreds, chunks and snack cheese. A company needs to have enough distinctive items in each subcategory to be noticed and garner early success. When Land O’Lakes launched its dairy case cheese offerings, it started with six shredded, four chunk and two snack offerings.
In its first 18 months, the dairy case offering expanded from around 100 to over 2,000 stores. Some of the retailers carrying Land O Lakes® Cheese include Stop & Shop, Giant Co, Giant Food, Hannaford and Price Chopper in the Northeast, and Cub, Mariano’s, Pick N Save, Festival, and Woodman’s in the Midwest. More locations in both regions are coming soon.
Our product line currently features 25 different products, including new flavors such as creamy Italian blend and habanero jack, as well as new formats like cheese cubes and cracker cuts. Ilene says market research shows that a company needs an extensive portfolio to compete effectively. That means more products are coming soon.
“Our portfolio started with cheddar as the backbone because we make amazing ageable cheddar, and that’s what we want to be known for,” Ilene says. “While we continue to add additional cheddar items, we’re also adding interesting flavors and formats to meet retailers’ requirements and satisfy customers.”
Land O’Lakes is taking deliberate and focused steps to ensure that the launch into dairy case cheese is a success. Brand initiatives such as Eat It Like You Own It build on previously established brand recognition and are helping customers feel good about purchasing more Land O’Lakes products.
“Measuring the impact of this campaign has shown us that when consumers learn our co-op story, they agree that Land O’Lakes shares their values,” Ilene says. “It’s important to share our story, as consumers increasingly put their dollars against brands with shared values.”
Combined with those shared values, Land O’Lakes’ push into the category is built on the back of the award-winning cheddar produced at our facility in Kiel, Wisconsin.
“There’s a lot of pride, both from the corporate team working on it and locally in Kiel. For a number of years, we’ve been selling cheese from our plant as an ingredient,” says Paul Hughes, GDI cheese sales manager.
“The employees who make the cheese in Kiel can now go to the grocery store, buy it and tell their friends and family that this is cheese that came from our plant. These folks are really passionate about what they do. It’s exciting.”
The history of cheesemaking at the Kiel facility dates back to the late 1940s, when a group of farmers wanted to make USDA Grade A cheese, a product unheard of at the time. Since then, the facility has built a foundation of excellence through decades of producing award-winning cheese.
“The story of that little cheese plant, how it was put together, its heritage…it’s quite a romantic story,” Paul says. “It was really ahead of its time in terms of cheese quality.”
In addition to having a leading facility, Land O’Lakes also has highly skilled people making that cheese. Tim Stearns, cheesemaker at the Kiel facility, was recently named a Master Cheesemaker by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.
Described as “essentially a Ph.D. in cheese” by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program is a rigorous 13-year commitment to learn how to make the highest quality cheese.
“It’s amazing to be able to work for a company that is pushing for this,” Tim says, “and to make an award-winning product for the farmers, too. It shows the hard work and the passion they’re putting in, we’re equally putting our best in. It means a lot.”
Land O Lakes® Dairy Case Cheese has a lot going for it. The combination of members’ milk, the expertise of the cheesemakers at Kiel and a Dairy Foods team dedicated to driving consumer demand has dairy case cheese set up for long-term success.
“This is the right time for Land O’Lakes to expand in the dairy case cheese category,” Ilene says. “We’re encouraged by our first year and a half in market, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to continue to grow our offerings.”