Merchandising Features / Grocery / Dairy

Private Label Cheese Makes its Mark

May 28, 2014
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Cheese is big business for private label. Natural shredded cheese has over 20 percent of the category (dollar share), up 2.27 percent for the 52 weeks ending April 20, 2014, per IRI. Private label is performing well across the board: natural crumbled cheese is up 7.86 percent (dollar share), natural slices are up 5.70, natural string/stick cheese is up 6.90, grated cheese is up 2.53 and ricotta is up 5.76.

Select aspects of product positioning—in terms of sourcing, labeling, merchandising, etc.—can help private label continue to slice into a greater share of the market. In order to dig into opportunities further, I recently sought insight from Matt Mathison, vice president, dairy company communications & technical services, at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).

Douglas J. Peckenpaugh: When a shopper sees “Wisconsin Master’s Mark” associated with a given cheese, what does that mean?

Matt Mathison: The distinctive blue Masters Mark® is an assurance of quality that the cheese has been made by one of Wisconsin’s elite craftsmen. That mark, which can be displayed by just 58 Wisconsin cheeesemakers who’ve completed the rigorous three-year Master’s program, tells quite a story.

It tells you that experience, technical expertise and artistry went into making that cheese. And, it means that you can be confident that you’ve chosen the best cheese from the only place in America where cheesemakers can become true masters of their craft —Wisconsin.


DJP: What does becoming a “Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker” entail?

MM: Only veteran craftsmen and women who have been working as licensed cheesemakers at Wisconsin plants for a minimum of 10 years are eligible to apply. What’s more, they must have been making the specific cheese variety or varieties in which they’re seeking certification for at least five years. They must pass initial plant inspections and demonstrate during an oral exam that they have the skills, knowledge, commitment to quality and passion to succeed in the program. Based on a review of those initial qualifications, the board then votes whether or not to admit them.

Once admitted, candidates spend the next two-and-a-half years completing advanced level courses ranging from the microbiology of milk and starter cultures, to evaluating cheese defects, to artisan cheesemaking. Their plants are periodically inspected and their products are regularly sampled and graded for flavor and composition.

The last step is the notoriously difficult and time-consuming final exam. It’s a written, open-book exam that is sent to the candidates in October and they have about a month to complete it. The exam takes 40 to 60 hours to complete, and it involves a lot of research and citing of references.


DJP: How can retailers best communicate the meaning behind Master’s Mark—the stories behind the cheeses—to shoppers?

MM: WMMB offers several customizable toolbox promotions available to retailers, including Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker themed recipe brochures, posters and point-of-sale materials. Some stores expand the promotion to include store visits from a Master Cheesemaker who talks with shoppers about the stories behind the cheeses and answers questions while sampling out the product. To learn more about our retail toolbox promotions, and for help developing custom store materials to educate consumers about the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, visit: or contact a WMMB regional marketing manager for assistance.


DJP: How can the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program help a retailer with a private label cheese program—in the deli case, in the cold case offering packaged cheeses, and through any in-store foodservice operations?

MM: For years, retailers have utilized the Wisconsin Master’s Mark to highlight the quality of their deli, foodservice operations and private label cheeses. Whether on point-of-sale materials—such as signage, menus or recipe brochures—or prominently displayed on cheese packaging, the Wisconsin Master’s Mark serves as a point of differentiation for retailers looking to add value to their cheese display. For example, Kroger uses the Master’s Mark logo on many of its Private Selection deli cheese selections to let customers know they are providing the best-quality Wisconsin cheese, many having won world recognition. They’ve also taken advantage of WMMB’s retail toolbox materials, using the Master Cheesemaker logo on point-of-sale to promote the quality of their Private Selection deli cheeses.

Dierbergs worked closely with the WMMB and a cheese supplier to develop Dierbergs Signature Master Cheesemaker program in 2008. Dierbergs has actively promoted the private label program by tying-in recipes, signage and brochures to further educate its customers to the advantages and benefits of these products. The company has reported a steady increase in cheese sales since its implementation.

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