How to turn cheese from an every-day commodity into a sought-after lifestyle brand? Join us for a brand building lesson from Cheese & More by Henri Willig.
Building a brand has never been easy. But today, with an overkill of information through all kinds of media, consumers’ ever shorter attention span, and drastically reduced brand trust and loyalty, brand building may be more challenging than ever before.
Yet, there are always the exceptions that confirm the rule, in this case those exceptional brands that make the impossible possible. Henri Willig with his brand retail format Cheese & More is one of those exceptional cases.
Had anyone told me a few years ago about a Dutch farmer and cheese manufacturer trying to build a brand for cheese with an own retail format in prime retail locations across Europe, I might have called them crazy.
But Henri Willig Kaas BV did just that. The company now operates 23 stores in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria and continues to expand. Most of the stores are in prime retail locations in close vicinity to life style brands e.g. in Calverstraat and Leidsestraat in Amsterdam, right at Marienplatz in Munich or at Kärntner Street in Vienna, opposite the Apple store.
How on earth did a Dutch farmer and dairy manufacturer build a successful lifestyle brand for a commodity like cheese? Let’s look at the key ingredients of Henri Willig’s brand building recipe.
The company produces a variety of tasty Gouda-type cheeses made form cow, goat and sheep milk refined with herbs, spices and other quality ingredients like whiskey, champagne or truffles. Part of the product range is organic but the majority is produced from non-organic milk.
Packaging & Design
The majority of the product range comes in a 400g baby cheese wheel format and is covered in a paraffin layer to stop the ageing process. The product packaging is a brightly coloured plastic layer with a round label featuring the Henri Willig logo, the special refining ingredient, the animal who delivered the milk, and the name of the cheese variety. The colouring and the uniformity of the product shape is an essential element of the company’s brand building success story.
The product is positioned in the premium price segment. Cheese & More’s young Gouda (one month old) is 60% more expensive than other comparable premium products and three times the price of a young Gouda you might find in a supermarket. Its extra old cow milk cheese (14 months old) is still 40% more expensive than comparable premium products of relevant competitors.
The company understood at a very early stage that verticalisation not only gives control over the entire supply chain and hence product quality, prices and margins, but enables them to actively build and control the relationship with the end-consumer.
Henri Willig started out as a milk farmer. But soon after taking over the family farm in 1974, he began to expand the business by manufacturing cheese from his own milk. He invested in what nowadays is called B2C from a very early stage. The farm soon became a hotspot for tourists who were looking for the Frau Antje from Holland experience, and finding it by tasting and buying traditional Dutch cheese directly at the farm shop.
Today, the company operates three tourist farms. Visitors can not only taste and buy cheese but learn about the manufacturing process, have a fun self-guided tour through an organic barn for Jersey cows, learn about traditional manufacturing of Dutch wooden shoes, have lunch or dinner at the restaurant, visit an open-air-museum, or take a boat tour.
Delivering an outstanding customer experience at authentic locations has always been at the centre of Henri Willig’s brand building strategy. But developing the ‘Cheese & More by Henri Willig’ retail format and placing it at the top retail hotspots of larger cities pushed the brand to new heights.
Using product presentation and packaging as a store design element and giving the store a cool, premium, design-driven lifestyle look & feel is the centrepiece of Henri Willigs’ brand building strategy. The entire store tells the story of a high-quality lifestyle product that is worth its premium price.
When I first came across the Munich store, it was pure curiosity that made me enter. And I just couldn’t believe that I had stumbled into a cheese store, of all things, at Marienplatz, Munich’s top tourist and prime retail location. The store was absolutely packed. And other people clearly weren’t there by accident like me, they were queuing eagerly to pay for their picks.
Just around the corner of the store is the famous Viktualienmarkt with at least five authentic, premium cheese booths. But people prefer to queue at the Henri Willig store to buy Dutch cheese that is even more expensive than comparable local products! In Germany, a country known for having some of the cheapest food prices in Europe.
And again, it’s the product design that makes the difference. The sealing paraffin shell and plastic packaging tells consumers that the cheese will last a while, even if taken home as a souvenir.
Another essential success factor is the tasting. You can taste each of the cheeses sold in the store without any staff interaction. No one is keeping tabs on how much you eat or observing whether you buy anything after tasting – thus no subconscious pressure because someone expects you to buy something.
And it works! The majority of consumers just tastes every single cheese in the store, and most end up discovering at least one kind they like. In addition to cheese, you can find complementary products, cheese tools and other gadgets.
And if you ask staff for help or signal that you are open for conversation, you find attentive, relaxed and well-trained staff able to tell you anything you ever wanted to know about cheese. And they instantly offer you the online shop opportunity. Knowing that a big chunk of the store audience are tourists from other cities or countries, the online shop is an essential element of brand building and brand loyalty. Even though the brand does not yet have retail stores in other European cities, you can already buy online Henri Willig cheeses in Spain, France and Russia.
Henri Willig already began building his brand in the last century. The product is tasty but not all that unique. The pricing is not really competitive, yet the company managed to build a premium, authentic lifestyle dairy brand. What makes the difference is the compelling storytelling at all consumer touch points, especially at the brand’s own retail stores with their up-to-date lifestyle design, the irresistible tasting opportunities and the attentive and knowledgeable store staff.
About the Author:
Heike Blank has worked for big organisations such as VF Europe and s.Oliver but also for niche brands such as Ecko Unltd. and Zoo York in top executive positions. Her extensive experience with opening and managing own retail, partner stores, concessions and shop-in-shops in 23 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia make her an expert in expansion and brand building. Read more of her work here and connect with her on LinkedIn.