Innovating with cheese

Designing new products for the local markets is a focus for many dairies, and Yili Group has managed to extend shelf life for its cheese products by moving into ambient and drinkable cheese, along with the child-friendly cheese lollipop brands. Hitto Homan, the Open Innovation Manager at Yili Innovation Centre in Europe, explains how they were developed and how the company is planning to expand the ideas throughout its international network.

Q. What are you looking for when developing new products for the market?

In general, Yili is a consumer-centric company driven by the motto of “no innovation, no future.” It is committed to developing diversified products that cater to the needs of all consumers at all life stages and scenarios. The Chinese dairy market is changing rapidly from drinking milk to consuming cheese. In general, more Chinese consumers are looking for products that can support a healthy lifestyle. For cheese, this translates to products high in calcium, dietary fibres and protein; reduced in fat, salt, and sugar, and aiming for “clean label.”

Yili has now developed a new product form of cheese for kids other than its lollipops. The product now is drinkable, giving consumers more choices. This drinkable cheese is shelf-stable, making it convenient for storage and to consume by both parents and children.

For the near future, strong growth is expected for natural cheeses and cheese products having a superior taste and ingredients, containing high levels of calcium and proteins, and combining this with a clean label.

Q. How long did it take to develop products such as the cheese lollipop and the drinkable cheeses?

The Cheese Lollipop was one of the first cheese products introduced to the Chinese market by Yili. Building a dedicated factory and the product

Image: Yili

development were both done in a relatively short period, and followed over time by new products varying in flavour. This could be done quickly because of existing broad experience in processed cheese. Recently, the production method and recipe of the Lollipops were adapted in order to make it ambient stable. This was done without compromising on the taste and ingredients. As a result, the Yili Ambient Cheese Lollipop was awarded the “Best Cheese” at the World Dairy Innovation Awards 2022.

The development of drinkable cheese needed more time: first, it took some time to develop the equipment needed. To meet consumer needs for safety and taste, extra time was used to guarantee a product with a very high level of safety combined with excellent taste and healthy ingredients. The Yili drinkable cheese currently is the only drinkable cheese in the Chinese market. It was named as the best dairy snack at the World Dairy Innovation Awards 2022 and also was the winner in the new product development category of the IDF Dairy Innovation Awards 2022.

Q. In what other sectors such as ambient yogurt, is Yili expanding?

Yili Group is expanding rapidly in all its product areas, such as liquid milk, yogurt, dairy powders, ice cream and drinking water. One such example is the premium milk brand Satine. It began as the first organic milk launched in the Chinese market, and now the brand range includes varieties such as low-fat and A2-milks. Another successful Yili brand is Ambpomial, an ambient stable Greek-style yogurt adapted to Chinese consumer preferences, with annual sales of over RMB20 billion (€2.7bn) . Ambpomial is now sold both as drinkable products as well as spoonable. We have also introduced the Ambpomial AMX Zero Sugar yogurt.

Q. Since the launch, how have the drinkable cheeses been performing?

The market for kids cheese products is rapidly expanding in China. Yili took the lead in the children’s cheese category innovation and launched the drinkable cheese. We transformed nutritious solid cheese into nutritious cheese in a liquid state, offering more variety to consumers and combining it with convenience in use, as it is ambient stable.

According to the financial report for the first through third quarters of the fiscal year 2022, Yili’s cheese business witnessed a significant growth of over 30 per cent year-on-year. The drinkable cheese has made an important contribution to this. After the launch, it has become one of the best-selling products.

Q. What about expansion to other countries?

Yili has now put into place a network comprising a global resource system, a global innovation system and a global market system. The network covers regions including Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania. The company owns 15 R&D and innovation centres and 75 production bases. Its liquid milk, milk powder, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream are on the market in more than 60 countries and regions.

In pursuing international development, the company follows a philosophy of mutual development, and actively collaborates with global partners on friendly terms through “global mindsets and local operations.” Aside from this, the company takes the initiative to get involved in local communities, discovers and trains local talents, proactively fulfils its social responsibilities, promotes local economic growth and prosperity and shares its development gains with partners.

Q. How is the innovation centre in Europe progressing?

The Yili Innovation Centre Europe has been working now for over seven years to support the growth of Yili. It is based in Wageningen, the Netherlands at the campus of Wageningen University. The Yili Innovation Centre Europe is active in research and development and plays an important role in the contact of Yili with the international community of suppliers, universities, and research facilities in Europe. Currently, the Yili Innovation Centre Europe is building a pilot plant in Wageningen, planning to work on innovative cheese products starting the first half of 2023.

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