March 08. 2012 2:00AM - Last modified: March 15. 2012 11:57AM

Cheese is the Apple of Wisconsin

  
As I sit here deciding whether or not to buy the New iPad from Apple, I was wondering, "Does Wisconsin have an Apple?"

Turns out the answer is yes, and, cue the spotlight, drum-roll please, the answer is cheese. Let's compare, Apple Computer vs. Wisconsin Cheese: huge brand awareness – check, market dominance – check, innovative new products – check, a great company to promote the brand – you don't know the half of it.

It turns out that our dairy business has the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), and they are the rock star of all things cheese. They work diligently to keep Wisconsin's dairy products on every grocery shelf, in every fine restaurant, and in your refrigerator and they are very, very good at it.

"Our job is straightforward – to create demand for Wisconsin milk," says Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of corporate communications at WMMB. "We do this by focusing primarily on the promotion of Wisconsin cheese since about 90 percent of the milk in this state goes into cheesemaking. But we also promote the consumption of all Wisconsin dairy products through a variety of strategies and tactics, from retail and foodservice promotional efforts in all 50 states to advertising and the use of social media."

Each year WMMB invests north of 25 million dollars on national advertising, public relations, local markets and grassroots promotions, funds the Wisconsin Dairy Council (the nutrition education arm of WMMB) and provides nearly half of the funding for the UW Center for Dairy Research. They also provide Market Research, and Technical Services as well as partnering with the cheese companies in the state.

Holly cow Batman (cow, get it?), you mean 25 million of my hard earned tax dollars goes to promote cheese? NO, actually the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board is farmer-owned, farmer-directed and farmer funded -- ten cents from every 100 pounds of milk produced in the state goes to WMMB. An additional five cents goes to the National Dairy Promotion & Research Board for generic dairy promotion activities at the national level.

"In 1983, Wisconsin dairy farmers decided to create a checkoff program to promote the consumption of dairy products made from Wisconsin milk," Geoghegan points out. "The operations of the organization are overseen by a board of 25 dairy farmers who are elected by their peers. They oversee the development of our plans and budgets and monitor our activities. Since the time we were established, per capita cheese consumption has grown by more than 50 percent and total milk usage has increased by 38 percent. Other states also became active in promotion of their dairy products and while Wisconsin's market share of total milk and cheese has fallen, total state milk production has grown 11 percent and cheese production has increased more than 50 percent. "The pie has gotten much larger as a result and Wisconsin has benefitted," says Geoghegan. "The Center for Dairy Profitability at UW-Madison has estimated that more than 90 percent of farmers' income is reinvested in their local communities, which creates a powerful economic engine for all of Wisconsin whether you live on a dairy farm or not. Farmers' tax dollars pay for good roads, excellent schools and other critical elements of what makes Wisconsin special."

And one of the best features of the dairy industry for Wisconsin's economy is that it's steady. "It's hard to tell a cow to stop producing milk when prices fluctuate, Geoghegan says. "So, it provides great stability to the Wisconsin economy."

UW-Madison researchers have estimated that Wisconsin's dairy industry generates more than $26.5 billion in economic activity for the state and nearly 150,000 jobs, making it Wisconsin's most important single economic sector.

If the Apple Computer logo is iconic and represents excellence in all things tech, the Wisconsin Cheese logo cannot be far behind and clearly denotes Wisconsin's Cheese as the best in the world. The logo appears on thousands of products and is used on hundreds of marketing and point of sale items from boxes and brochures to videos and variety charts. Much of this material is available free or at minimal cost to both those manufacturing or selling Wisconsin cheese. Walk into any cheese market in the country and you will see the Wisconsin Cheese logo prominently displayed along with maps, directories, and guides touting the quality of Wisconsin Cheese.

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board is everywhere. They attend food trade shows, give educational seminars and develop ways for cheese buyers to get to know Wisconsin cheesemakers so they can better understand the Wisconsin difference. WMMB has also brought food editors into the state so they could meet real Wisconsin cheesemakers and as a result Wisconsin cheese stories are appearing in all the hip foodie print media and a number of books about the state's cheese industry have begun popping up in bookstores across the country.

Oh, and they just may have several of the best websites in the world. World's best websites? Don't believe me, turn up your sound on the computer and check out the Cheese and Burger Society at cheeseandburger.com. Back, hungry aren't you? Did you see the Mama Mia? The Cheese and Burger Society microsite has generated 440 million impressions in 187 countries and currently has more than 100,000 Facebook fans. In fact, the site has become so popular that Google currently ranks it as the fifth most important site when searching for cheeseburgers – and that's out of 18 million possible pages. Which, by the way, is higher than McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy's.

There are more websites - grilledcheeseacademy.com turns the simple grilled cheese sandwich into an art form while introducing the consumer to new and uniquely Wisconsin products. Cheesecupid.com pairs wine, spirits and beer with the right cheese - who knew that Bock and Gouda was a marriage made in heaven? Dairydoingmore.org is an informational and educational resource for all ages on the economic and social impact the dairy industry has. All of these sites are in addition to the more mainstream web offering, eatwisconsincheese.com, with even more information, video, and consumer resources -- plus 30 ways to make Mac and Cheese along with thousands of recipes from some of the world's best chefs.

In fact, each year the WMMB Chef Ambassador program selects a handful of the best chefs in the nation to develop new menu applications and promote Wisconsin cheeses through events in their restaurants, in media appearances and appearances at food events and conferences.

The WMMB print and billboard ad campaigns have elevated cheese to fine art. These beautiful images and simple messages grace the pages of the world's finest food and wine magazines, including Better Homes & Gardens, Cooking Light, Food & Wine, and Saveur. The current print campaign playfully creates words like "chewlicious," and "craveosity" to describe the sublime joys of eating Wisconsin cheese. The humor along with the photography is what sets the creative apart.

"We wanted to create advertisements that were as good as the cheeses being made with our farmers' milk," says Geoghegan. "The ads have become iconic in that when readers see truly beautiful pictures of cheese, they think of Wisconsin."

One out of every four pounds of cheese sold in the nation is from Wisconsin. WMMB is working with national grocery store chains and food distributors to maintain and increase distribution and visibility in every major retail market in the country. WMMB has a team of 10 regional marketing managers who connect retail store chains, distributors and food buyers across the country with our state's cheese manufacturers to help build Wisconsin Cheese sales.

"We know that less than 2 percent of the American population live on farms today, so it's critical to keep our message front and center," Geoghegan comments. "In terms of our advertising, we compete very well with some of the world's best brands even though they have far deeper pockets. The information age has been a challenge and an opportunity for us in that we are able to reach many more people today than when the only avenues available were traditional advertising options. Today, through the use of social media we can reach people with content that is informative and engaging and on a cost per thousand basis, much more efficient."

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board even won an Emmy for a segment of the Into the Outdoors show produced by Discover Mediaworks, Inc. The award for The Art and Science of Cheesemaking, exploring the complexities of crafting award-winning Wisconsin cheeses, was actually the second Emmy for WMMB. Who knew? And in September, an industry trade magazine, Progressive Grocer, named WMMB one of the most effective commodity promotion organizations in the United States.

"Wisconsin's dairy industry has one of the most valuable brands on earth," Geoghegan says. "If we were challenged to build from the ground up what we have today, it would be nearly impossible because you couldn't match the variables that have come together here to create what is perhaps the richest dairy region on earth. Consumers know that Wisconsin is the place where great cheese is made, where farmers are stewards of the land and that innovation is still the rule. But those assets have to be reinforced every day. We live in a media-driven world today and as it is said, if your brand does not exist in the media, it doesn't exist."

One of the strengths of Wisconsin's dairy industry is its diversity – we have farms of every size and description. Wisconsin leads the nation in organic milk production, all cheese and specialty cheese within that category; we have approximately 20 percent of the nation's dairy farms. Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that for perhaps the first time since the late 1920's the number of cheese-making facilities in the state has actually increased, spurred by a burst of interest in artisan and farmstead dairy products nationally.

Wisconsin has been at the forefront of that movement through the cooperative efforts of the nation's most well-integrated infrastructure, which includes the University system, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, a variety of dairy associations and non-profit initiatives. Because of its dairy infrastructure, Wisconsin has attracted a number of new cheese companies who want to take advantage of the state's unique set of dairy assets and by doing so help build even greater demand for Wisconsin milk. American, Canadian, French, Italian, Danish and Mexican companies have either purchased existing operations, built new facilities or established partnerships in Wisconsin over the past decade, which is testament to the state's enduring reputation.

"There's a new recognition that Wisconsin has what it takes," says Geoghegan. "We have an excellent reputation among consumers, we have a commitment to producing extremely high quality products, we have the research facilities necessary for continued innovation and we have an organization in WMMB to help manufacturers find markets for their Wisconsin products."

Recently, Wisconsin had declared itself "Open For Business." The state has restructured the Commerce Department into the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation as our Governor declares, "Now is the time for bold ideas and cooperation to move Wisconsin's economy forward."

Wisconsin has spent millions attracting new business into the state. Our forays into bio-tech, aviation, and other emerging "industry clusters" are front and center in economic development. It appears Wisconsin could learn a great deal from the long standing efforts of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

If Wisconsin wants to find the next Apple Computer, maybe they should look in their own backyard. We have one.

Ken Harwood is executive director of Lafayette Development Corp. and editor of Wisconsin Development News at www.WisconsinDevelopment.com.

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