"Our survival will be based on absorbing complexity and being clever," Parsons says

"Our survival will be based on absorbing complexity and being clever," Parsons says

UK cheese maker Cricketer Farm supplies the country's major retailers with low-fat cheese, a category growing amid the rising consumer interest in health. However, in the last 18 months, the business has added a new brand - Cheeky Cow - to its portfolio, with half the fat of mature cheddar. MD Greg Parsons talks to Dean Best about the brand's early performance, the competition and how there are plans for "evolution" in 2015.

just-food: The majority of your business is in own label. Is there a desire to become a more branded operation?

Parsons: Definitely. We produce own-label cheese for Sainsbury's, Lidl, the Co-op, Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda. Our branded products go into Tesco regionally. Because it's gone from a very niche market into a relatively sizeable market now, that's been attractive to some of our biggest competitors. With the brand leader, [Dairy Crest's] Cathedral City, launching into the branded area, they have given the public a taste that cheddar with lower fat can be made that's barely differentiated from standard products.

just-food: Is having competitors the size of Dairy Crest or Kerry Group in the category a concern?

Parsons: It's a good thing. Like lots of other things in the retailer, low-fat cheese becomes just another area in which they've got to have something in but [are] not driven to promote it too far. Cheese is such a highly-consumed product it makes sense to be driven. The launch of Cathedral City Lighter [in 2007] gave it that impetus. What we've been looking at is there is no brand that's purely focused on half-fat cheese. We think: 'Actually let's pick up that market that has been left behind.' Brands also have a greater potential return than own label.

just-food: Some consumers are reluctant to eat low-fat cheese. 

Parsons: Yeah, over taste and texture mainly. In the past, low-fat cheeses have just not cut the mustard. Things have moved o - not just us - the market, through the development of cultures and skills, has moved on. The only real way to convince consumers is getting cheese in their mouths. We will typically spend two days in week in-store sampling. It's a great way to get immediate feedback. We've got coupons as well, that will be a motivation to buy and get good repeat purchase. Working with local newspapers as well. What we've tried to ignore is that we are niche to the consumer. What we want to be their main cheese in the fridge.

just-food: That's quite a challenge.

Parsons: Of course but if it wasn't everybody would be doing it wouldn't they.

just-food: How concerned are you that a brand like Cathedral City could become the default option for healthier cheese?

Parsons: Let's be honest, it's happening. Our survival is based on being nimble and ahead of the pack, accepting at some stage they'll come along and gobble us up. But when you are making 60,000 tonnes of cheese a year as they do at their sites, you have very little control in the process. We're making our cheese by hand, making two-tonne batches at a time, we've got full traceability of where our milk comes from. When we launched Cheeky Cow 18 months ago, our point of difference was we were a brand in what is a declining market within a really fast-growing market.

Healthy cheese is growing significantly, healthy cheddar is growing significantly, but when you break it down, it's being driven by reduced-fat cheese, by brands, at the expense of half-fat cheese. Historically, the consumer for a low-fat cheese would have been a specialist - Mums on a diet. Cathedral City and the other brands changed that behaviour, saying it's alright to have the whole family having that block but they left behind the half-fat category. Our view was if we put a brand in half-fat and make it look like a standard cheese in the fixture, maybe people will take that step and go a stage further.

What we've done with the launch planned for January is reduce the salt. That gives us a real USP and is very difficult for our competitors to follow. What can be levelled at us is that retailers can say 'I don't need you on my shelf. I've got own-label low-fat cheese.' We say: 'Actually, you're not doing anything with own label. We're trying to raise attention, meet a national issue - health - and market around that. Look at what we've done regionally, we can do this nationally if you give us a chance.' That's been a difficult argument. We get close to pushing somebody over the edge, then the buyer changes. We figured we should give ourselves a USP. Salt is not going away.

just-food: So you've had to change tack on Cheeky Cow being a branded half-fat cheese, with you hitting a wall with buyers saying they already had reduced-fat own label and Cathedral City in the fixture.

Parsons: Rather than change, it's an evolution. Businesses of our size, our survival will be based on absorbing complexity and being clever. Straight mathematics say you cannot compete with the scale and efficiency you get from a big cheese-making plant.

just-food: What have you done with the product technically?

Parsons: Working in partnership with AkzoNobel, we use a product called Suprasel OneGrain, which reduces the sodium by 30% and within that we use a mineral salt and a yeast extract. It's all in one grain. In the manufacturing process, the cheese is hand-salted anyway, so to a cheese maker it's the same process, just a different product. We started these trials over four years ago and we tested tweaked the product before we took it to market. We took it to market last November through work with Compass in foodservice - we call it Eatwell in foodservice - and it has been a roaring success. We're confident we can deliver it in retail.

just-food: Are you emphasising on-pack that the new Cheeky Cow has less salt?

Parsons: When we relaunch Cheeky with the reduced salt recipe in January, we will not be emphasising this benefit on pack apart from in the ingredients deceleration because we don’t want shoppers to think that it is too detached from standard cheddar and too many messages can promote caution and resistance to purchase. This is a health by stealth story.

just-food: How close are you to securing a national listing?

Parsons: We'll be national in Lidl in January and if they follow last year's pattern, we'll be back in again in February. They are very unpredictable so, as much as we appreciate the exposure, their motivation isn't behind taking in brands, their motivation is driving their offer and their tertiary brands really. They're not the ideal partner but we'll take anyone. Outside of that, Tesco has been such a loyal partner since [the initial launch of Cheeky Cow] that they are the obvious target, particularly with the recent focus on health and wellness [but] my guy can't even get to see the buyer.

just-food: Do you think that's a function of the internal issues there?

Parsons: I do. The focus of the buyers is very short-term, what deal they can get that's going to stimulate the customer tomorrow, rather than any further ahead. They could get hold of what we are doing here and say: 'We are only going to go national on an exclusive basis.' And we would say: 'Of course we will.' Part of me wishes it was a rubbish brand or consumers rejected it or there wasn't a macro health trend going on because then you'd have an excuse to cut our losses. However, we've got now, with the healthy season ahead of us, a lot of ammunition to have another shot.