When thinking of fine cheeses, California might not be the first place that springs to mind. But the California Milk Advisory Board has launched a national education effort to change that.
When it comes to California's next culinary conquest, the state has its eyes set on two rivals that couldn't be more different - Wisconsin and France.
In the US, Wisconsin is the top cheese producer. And when it comes to global reputation for fine cheeses, it's hard to top the French. But California aims to surpass both.
California, in fact, produces some of the tastiest cheese that will ever grace your taste buds. And you can't throw a piece of pre-sliced American, particularly in a foodie haven like the Bay Area, without finding a rich cornucopia of cheeses, not just at specialty stores, but even at big-box supermarkets.
California has not always been so blessed. For many, cheese was synonymous with bags of pre-shredded varieties hanging in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.
The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) changed all that.
Charged with representing more than 2,100 dairy families throughout the state, the CMAB - overseen by the state Department of Food & Agriculture - focuses solely on promoting products made from cow's milk. But with 46% of the state's milk going into cheese production, the CMAB saw its future - and that of the state's dairies - in the shape of mold-ripened, triple-cream cheese from specialty cheese makers, such as the revered Cowgirl Creamery.
California is the leading producer of milk in the US, says Nancy Fletcher, CMAB VP of communications. But Wisconsin still produces more cheese - 2.4 billion pounds annually to California's 1.9 billion pounds. With Americans expected to continue consuming more cheese - 31.2 pounds per person this year and 36.5 pounds by 2015 - the CMAB sees a ripe opportunity.
But getting people to care about cheese, much less where it's from, isn't easy, particularly when most people scarf down cheese on a pizza or burger, not with a glass of Syrah.
"We want to give people an emotional incentive to purchase cheese," Fletcher says. "You have to make them aware and want to try it."
But that's hard when you represent an industry that has more than 50 cheese makers creating more than 250 varieties and that has no control over production, packaging, or distribution. The CMAB's job is education and illumination of the cheese palate.
As a PR team of one, with a $1.7 million budget, Fletcher can't do all this on her own. She has worked closely with Context Marketing for nearly a decade.
"People know that California is an innovator, including in food, with wine, chocolate, and olive oil," explains Bob Kenney, the president of Context Marketing. "We took that California brand, that lifestyle choice, and applied it to cheese."
Educating the media
The CMAB engages in extensive research to showcase the California cheese industry's leadership, providing data on production and consumption (of both commodity and specialty cheeses), as well as economic studies defining the impact of California's dairy industry. Such information has helped establish the CMAB as a trusted media source about the burgeoning cheese industry throughout the US. And with the media hungry for information about cheese, the CMAB was in a strong position to specifically educate the media about California's cheeses.
The CMAB has developed a recipe program for the media and produces brochures showing consumers how to enjoy cheese, as well as maps of where they can visit cheese makers, much like wineries.
"When you are a commodity board, you have to be careful what you say," says Kenney. "You have to represent all the products, which is an interesting challenge, since there are 250 different cheeses, and more than 50 cheese makers. We have to represent all of them."
Marisa Simoes, owner of Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese, says the CMAB's efforts have given cheese makers like herself credibility and have helped garner media coverage, something often beyond the means of such small-business owners.
Such credibility and coverage come from educational seminars for the media, where they can taste a variety of cheeses.
"We've done this for hundreds of food writers," says Fletcher. "It's something that is creative and provides content and context, and educates, as well as promotes. And word spreads about these kinds of seminars, and we get asked to do them all over. And they reach the food influentials, and then it trickles down to the consumer. When we get strong media coverage, we reach out to local retailers who might want to showcase that cheese."
The Los Angeles Times ran an article in its business section under the headline "California cheese ripens into an art," which spoke of specialty cheese, such as blue cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead and gouda from Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese.
The Associated Press wrote about the gooey pleasure of grilled cheese made from Monterey Jack from California, a story picked up by more than 70 newspapers across the country.
And The New York Times wrote the kind of story that makes the French resent the US just a little bit more - titled "A new Normandy, north of the Golden Gate."
Beyond in-store cheese tastings, coupons, and the CMAB's "Happy Cows" advertising, the best tool in the CMAB's arsenal has been educating the media and influencers.
"Our job is to create the perception of California as a leader in making high-quality, great tasting cheeses," says Fletcher. "So we want to reach food writers, retail buyers, cookbook authors, people who influence others. We like to compare ourselves to where the wine industry was 20 years ago. They focused on high-quality wines, specialty wines. That elevated all of California's reputation as a wine maker. We want to do the same thing with cheese."
Those educational seminars have been a big part of the CMAB's - and specialty cheese makers' - success. The seminars are held not just for national food and lifestyle media, but also for retailers, distributors, chefs, and restaurateurs.
Grabbing national attention
This has been the CMAB's plan for the past 10 years, although it was only in 1999 that the PR initiatives went national. The program began by making people aware of California's cheese industry. But as production increased, cheese makers began to seek buyers outside of California in 1999. And the CMAB knew that just because the cheese came from California, that was not enough to get people to buy it.
"We wanted to tie cheese to a lifestyle," Fletcher explains. "We knew the media weren't going to write about cheese without something new to say. We knew [that] by focusing on specialty and artisan cheese makers, the media would stay interested in what we were doing. PR helps provide that important endorsement of our industry and our product."
Media coverage of those specialty cheese makers, and the burgeoning California industry, led the Columbia Business School to study the CMAB's marketing strategy.
"One of the CMAB's most successful initiatives, implemented under the public relations program, has been the extensive program it created to nurture the growth of the state's nascent artisan and farmstead cheese industries," writes professor Michelle Greenwald in her case study. "California has quickly developed a worldwide reputation as a respected producer of many specialty, artisan, and farmstead cheese types."
So even as specialty and artisan cheeses - which represent only a small slice of the state's cheese output - gained national attention, that attention helped raise the profile and appreciation of all of California's cheese, be it a big block of mild cheddar or Red Hawk, a $20-a-pound cheese from Cowgirl Creamery that won best in show out of 616 entries at the American Cheese Society's annual conference last year.
"PR has carried specific messages, about why California makes great cheese, and the state's heritage and tradition of cheese making," adds Kenney.
He says that even though a small percentage of the cheese made is from specialty cheese makers, those cheeses speak to the core values of the industry and represent some of the finest in America.
"I think they have done an extraordinary job," says chef and cookbook author John Ash. "Artisan cheese was off the radar just a few years go. If you were going to buy a good cheese, you looked outside California and the US. But they focused on restaurants and chefs and other gatekeepers for America's tastes. It was brilliant."
VP of communications Nancy Fletcher
PR agency Context Marketing