Cheese Site Aims to Ferment Demand, Community

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Though cheese consumption per person is at its highest level in years, the American Dairy Association is pushing for more with a newly upgraded site at www.ilovecheese.com.


"The challenge that we have is to make sure that cheese lovers are aware of new ways to use cheese," said Sherie J. Gergely, director of public and industry relations at Dairy Management Inc., the association's parent that controls marketing and planning. "Our whole goal is to make sure that we get across this information on behalf of America's dairy farmers and cheese makers. We really need to make sure that the demand is there."


Demand is certainly there. While total industry figures were unavailable, supermarkets sold $10.2 billion worth of cheese last year, according to the association. Still, that accounted for just 40 percent of cheese consumed. The food-service channel, via fast-food chains and restaurants, accounted for another 40 percent. The rest was consumed as ingredients on prepared food like frozen pizza and microwave meals.


Ilovecheese.com, which gets nearly 35,000 unique visitors monthly, is targeted to an audience that consumes cheese through all of these channels.


In its latest iteration, the 4-year-old site offers a cheese guide, postcards, recipes, entertaining ideas, a special section for cheese lovers and online shopping.


The site is designed to look like a magazine, said Jim Lecinski, general manager of Tribal DDB Chicago, the association's interactive agency.


"There is a Webzine feel to this site," he said, "so the users of general interest or food magazines, like Martha Stewart Living or Bon Appetit, these types of gourmet magazines, would find the layout of our site very consistent with their print and offline experiences."


The association is using television, retail and food-service advertising, plus public relations, to boost awareness of the site. Commercials using the "Ahh, the power of cheese" theme will run on E! TV, Lifetime, Fox Family, Nick at Nite, FX, TBS, TNT, USA and VH1.


Even before marketing began, 12,000 consumers signed up to receive The Cheese Chatter, an online monthly newsletter on trends, news, events and contests.


To encourage interactivity, a contest called "Are you America's Greatest Cheese Lover?" has begun. Visitors are asked to create their most romantic recipe with cheese and recount how cheese brought romance into their life.


The winner receives a year's supply of cheese, a romantic cheese-country getaway for two to Vermont and a starring role in a 2003 "Ahh, the power of cheese" ad.


Sometimes, consumers are simply not satisfied with information alone. The site allows for online shopping from brands like Sargento, Zingerman's, Hickory Farms, Murray's Cheese Shop, Project Truffle, Cabot Creamery, Grafton Village and Mozzarella Company. Consumers also can buy "Ahh, the power of cheese" merchandise like caps and cheese erasers.


But the most crucial aspect of the site is the sense of community it is intended to create. Research by the American Dairy Association unearthed that cheese lovers wanted to share their passion for the dairy product.


Of course, Lecinski knows that people do not automatically gravitate to industry or association Web sites. That is why the agency tried to focus on lifestyles and personal experiences similar to the online efforts of the Texas Beef Producers Association or the California Egg Board as well as fan club and collectibles sites.


"We thought, if these are really cheese lovers, people who are passionate about cheese and have it front and center in their lives, what are the other types of sites for fans, for people who are rabid about something," he said. "So we looked at Beanie Baby sites, baseball card sites. So that's how we wanted to build this, the rational influence of the California Egg Board site combined with the gravitational pull of the emotion surrounding fan sites."


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