Making the old new

The biggest successes in dairy nutrition are based not on radical new technologies and ingredients but on traditional dairy foods, reinvented and made easier for consumers to enjoy. It is the skill of new product development (NPD) teams in re-inventing traditional foods – adapting taste or texture or making them more convenient for new consumers – which has created the biggest ‘disruptive innovations’ in food and health and given birth to new market segments that did not previously exist.

The surge in sales in the US in 2023 of cottage cheese, for example, shows how success can come from breathing new life into a traditional food. Brands focused on few and simple ingredients, new snackable formats, creative and interesting tastes, kept the simple promise of protein at the centre of the offering and marketed creatively through social media – the medium that is now the mainstream media for consumers under the age of 40.

As a result, cottage cheese sales in the US in 2023 were up 16.6%, measured in dollars, to a total of $1.3 billion, and grew 4.7% by volume. This remarkable achievement was against the backdrop of hefty price rises that left most categories in the supermarket with flat or falling volumes. And in case you are wondering, no plant-based dairy alternative category came anywhere close to this level performance. In fact, most plant-based categories experienced volumes flat or down, with sales in the tiny plant-based cheese niche (it accounts for 1% of the US market) falling for the second year in a row.

If you look at the progress of the kefir category in the UK you can see similar lessons at work. In 2023 Biotiful, the market leader with a 50% share, increased sales of its drinkable kefir by 21%, to €40 million, achieving this even while sales of most dairy drinks were flat and even plant milk sales dipped. The brand has few and simple ingredients, a strong authenticity and puts digestive wellness (along with protein one of consumers most-sought benefits) at the centre of its proposition. Taste is excellent and marketing is creative. And by the way, privately-owned Biotiful is profitable, and has been since 2015, it has received only modest investment and retains its high market share despite being in competition with dairy giant Arla. It’s the disciplined focus on re-making a traditional product that gives the results.

It’s the same story that you find with the rise of Greek yogurt, skyr and many other dairy foods, where creative brands have taken a traditional style of food and reinvented it for a modern consumer, without losing the integrity of the original product. It’s what the dairy industry does better than any other.

Here is a five-point checklist for a successful traditional dairy foods reinvented strategy:

  1. Taste, texture – the mild taste of cottage cheese and its soft texture make it acceptable to most people. It can be matched with anything, sweet or savoury. It can be a snack in its own right, it can be put it on bread, with pasta, with fruit, spices or herbs and be used as an ingredient in a wide range of dishes. Greek yogurt, when it debuted in the US 15 years ago, provided a step-change in the consumer’s experience of taste and texture and that simple fact was one of the rapid drivers of success for the category.
  2. Versatility, convenience – good taste and texture make cottage cheese a versatile food. But brands have also worked hard to snackify it, moving from mostly selling large family-size tubs to single-serve products with a range of flavours.
  3. Health trend connections – consumers have a continuing and unshakeable interest in protein. If you can offer something that is also low in sugar that makes it interesting for people who want to manage their weight or reduce it. Cottage cheese is also low in fat and has lower calorie credentials. Kefir has digestive wellness credentials, which health forward consumers can learn about from social media, such that no health claim is needed. Dairy products – Greek, skyr, cottage cheese, kefir – at their best also have short ingredient lists that aligns with the “Naturally Functional” mega-trend. What most people want, more than anything else, is for their foods to be naturally functional – to provide a benefit that’s intrinsic to the food. Given the choice they will always select a product that they believe is naturally functional over one with an added, science-based, science-sounding ingredient.
  4. New and credible benefits – in the US, the Good Culture cottage cheese brand not only scores on all of the points above, it has brought a new benefit to the category which is both a) credible to the consumer in a dairy product and b) aligned with the most important key trends. Good Culture also offers the benefits of probiotics, with their strong association with digestive wellness. This means that consumers can get their digestive benefits from a new category (and not just yogurt) and one which, because its fresh dairy, is a credible place to find that ingredient and benefit. Good Culture was rewarded with the biggest growth rate of any cottage cheese brand in 2023, with sales up 57% by value to and 31.2% by volume.
  5. Affordability – most dairy products are affordable for most consumers, something that is particularly important now and will be for the next three to five years as consumer budgets tighten.

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