Strange currencies

What is it about cheese that makes consumers go hog wild? Why does it send us into a literal feeding frenzy?

What is it about cheese that makes consumers go hog wild? Why does it send us into a literal feeding frenzy?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Kraft Foods CEO Irene B. Rosenfeld where she responded to the question "How will you make the new-products pipeline stronger?" with:

Part of the strategy is really about looking at our products through the consumers' eyes rather than through our manufacturer's lens. Cheese is a perfect example. Our cheese segments are based on our manufacturing processes. We have processed slices, natural chunks, jar cheese - not exactly the most appetizing kinds of descriptions. Consumers are using processed slices to make sandwiches. They're using natural chunks to snack. They're using jar cheese to dip and spread. So if you start to focus on it from the consumers' perspective, it opens up a whole world of possibilities to what new products one might offer.

In a Cheez It commercial, a little girl posits that a cheese wheel rolls over the little square snack cracker giving each bite a wallop of cheese flavor.

For years, Cheetos' Chester Cheetah has told us "It's not easy being cheesy." The company also says that these cheese doodles are "Dangerously cheesy."

And Kraft's own Macaroni & Cheese, around since 1937, has had a double-pronged branding message that uses both its iconic blue box and talk of it being "The cheesiest."

This isn't even real cheese (as Ms. Rosenfeld clearly states), but rather a salty orange substance that hits our taste buds in just the right spot so as to give off the impression of a cheese taste. But, as Rosenfeld looks forward to new creations, these longstanding brands and their marketing strategies endure.

The human love of cheese goes back much farther than these products. On my recent trip to the cheese counter at Manhattan gourmet food shop, Balducci's, Devin, an obvious cheese expert, told me that he sells a cheese whose recipe goes back 1,300 years. Back in the day, across Europe, you could tell where a person was from based on the secret cheese recipe that their town used. To this day, you can tell where a cheese has been produced by the taste of it - saltier tastes are usually from somewhere near the ocean, the distinctive taste of certain Roquefort cheeses comes from mold produced in the caves of France.

"Cheese is from the people," he said.

Not far from the PRWeek offices, there's a fondue restaurant called Dip. A lot of their business is comprised of groups who come in and share a pot of cheese (or chocolate) to dip their meal.

"It's interactive," says Tiffany Goik, director of PR for the restaurant. The fun texture (the pulling and stretching) is also appealing. "Cheese is comforting and warm," she says. "It's strong enough for people to notice, but doesn't overtake the dish."

So how is it that both of these people, who make their living surrounded by fine cheeses, can be satisfied by the same "processed slices" and "natural chunks" that Rosenfeld talks about?

Goik compares it to the taste people have for both a fast food burger and a gourmet Kobe beef burger. "You know the Kobe beef burger is higher quality, but you can't help but love the [fast food burger]," she says.

"I like an American cheese sandwich," says Devin. "I'm from here. I try to stay balanced."

Ultimately, it goes back to Devin's statement about cheese being from the people. These brand messages are fixed firmly in our culture. And plastic-wrapped cheese, perhaps in a grilled cheese sandwich, or with mayo, white bread, and a few slices of turkey, is a quintessentially American meal.

Strange currencies is a regular column by PRWeek web reporter Tonya Garcia.

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