Some hallmark Swiss cheeses may disappear from foreign supermarket shelves if
certain forecasts are right. Cheaper “knock-offs” and a lack of brand identity
are to blame, but some cheesemakers have found the secret to success lies on
In a recent edition of the Swiss agricultural newspaper Der Landfreund, marketing
experts predicted the disappearance of cheeses like Emmentaler, Tilsiter and
Sbrinz from foreign markets if they don’t set themselves apart from the
competition and turn around negative export trends.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, customers in Switzerland’s largest foreign
markets – Germany, France and Italy – started shopping much more on price, and
the Swiss brands struggled to keep up.
Take the example of Emmentaler. According to Konrad Heusser, who runs the Mundig
Swiss cheese export business, producers decided to export their youngest
possible cheese - “just four months old” – only for it to be “overwhelmed” by
the competition. “When cheese is so young the taste difference isn’t so big, and
then it’s only about the price.”
As a result, he says: “Consumers abroad didn’t understand the story behind the
Today, countless Emmentaler-like cheeses are available abroad under the label
‘Swiss cheese’ – some produced by Swiss dairy giant Emmi. A locally made Gruyère
in the US state of Wisconsin, for example, sells for two-thirds the price of the
imported Swiss version. Stagnant or declining export data for certain Swiss
brands shows the fallout.
So how is a Swiss cheesemaker, whose products are inherently more expensive,
supposed to compete against global brands that make similar cheeses? Appeal to
the discerning customer, advises Philippe Bobin, who produces Brie de Meaux, a
soft cheese that gets its name from the French town of Meaux just to the east of
“The clients know the difference,” he insists. “Technology has its limits. You
can make loads of industrial brie, but since you can’t treat it like a brie made
by hand, you don’t end up with the same product.”
Bobin and his fellow Brie de Meaux producers make up the “Brotherhood of Brie de
Meaux”, an ancient and hyper-local organisation that represents and celebrates
the cheese’s artisanal and traditional roots. The brotherhood’s role is to
preserve traditions around the cheese and communicate its value as a carefully
crafted product with a long and storied history.
“In France there are still small producers that kept their identities and that’s
what makes the difference,” Bobin says. “And the producers are very
well-developed, they’ve made a name for themselves in the area. That’s what’s
“Switzerland communicates on the level of ‘Swiss cheese’, but if you do that,
you oversimplify it and lose the local identity,” he observes.
“The French are incredible cheese chauvinists,” laughs Heusser. He points out
they eat mostly French cheeses, making it a more difficult export market for the
Swiss and a much more domestically focused one for French cheesemakers. But he
does believe Switzerland could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to
setting products apart from the competition – and probably should have done so
a while ago.
Appenzeller, a brand from eastern Switzerland, is trying to set itself apart by
advertising the product’s ‘secret recipe’ and status as the “spiciest cheese in
Switzerland”. Advertisements aimed specifically at the neighbouring German
export market, as well as a state-of-the-art visitors’ centre in the Appenzell
region, are the backbones of the campaign.
However, Appenzeller producers have yet to see big export results from this
marketing push; although they saw a boost in past years, in 2012, exports of the
cheese fell to their lowest level since 2008, according to figures from
Switzerland Cheese Marketing (see above graphic).
The parmesan wars
For exporters of the Italian cheese parmigiano reggiano, their local production
chain is the central part of every conversation with customers. With Italy’s
cheese market saturated and pressured by economic woes, those behind the brand
are working hard to grow exports every year, and lately, they’ve succeeded. But,
like struggling Swiss cheese brands, their biggest fight is the war on generics.
“The question of generics is a very serious one, but we have seen that laws to
maintain the protected labels are the thing that has really worked,” says Igino
Morini of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium. Laws
in the European Union have gone a long way towards protecting his label – and
making sure the term “parmesan” can only be applied to true parmigiano-reggiano.
Further afield, though, label protection has proven more difficult. In the
United States, “parmesan” is considered a generic term, despite legal efforts by
the parmigiano reggiano association to trademark the label. The same is true in
the emerging Chinese market, where customers not used to dairy products shop
largely on price and end up with run-of-the-mill “parmesan cheese” from New
Zealand instead of true parmigiano reggiano.
Diversifying and localising
If they can’t win the label battle outside of Europe, Morini says his brand’s
export success depends on educating customers about what makes parmigiano
reggiano unique, for example through direct campaigns and special events in
supermarkets and other points of sale.
Though he’s operating on a much smaller scale, Christian Simmen, who runs the
Sennerei Nufenen cheese cooperative in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, has found
that similar customer education strategies worked well in his first year of
exporting his specialty products to Germany.
Until ten years ago, his cooperative produced all of its cheese for the Swiss
wholesale market, working with Emmi and other distributors. Then, they slowly
began building up a unique product line, mostly for export. Today, about 60% of the cheeses they make are for their own distribution, and 40% go
“We started out very small in a specialty niche,” says Simmen. “We make organic
products all sourced regionally, and the whole marketing of the product and
telling the story behind it is linked to the fact that all the milk we use comes
from the area’s Alpine regions. And our exports have grown, bit by bit, every
Heusser has noticed a number of cheesemakers in Switzerland adopting strategies
similar to Simmen’s; they might produce a significant portion of their cheese
for a larger label or distributor, but “almost every cheesemaker makes another
cheese that they sell very regionally or export internationally”.
“We work with a cheesemaker who makes Appenzell cheese but also
makes a slightly similar product that’s ripened longer with more raw milk, and
that’s selling extremely well, especially in the US,” Heusser says. “We can’t
meet the demand for that cheese.”
Such successes make Heusser cautiously optimistic about the future of the Swiss
cheese market; an overall slight export increase in 2012 has been attributed to
the fact that niche and artisan products are finding their way into new markets.
And producers of struggling brands like Emmentaler have not turned a blind eye
to the problems they face and are trying to play catch-up. On July 1, 2013, new
volume controls for Emmentaler went into effect, halving each cheesemaker’s
production to render the product more unique and keep the market from becoming
flooded. Emmentaler has also made a special effort to appeal to a younger
domestic population, with special cheeses for the Federal Alpine Games Festival
and similar events.
But is it all too late to save the brands that have, for so long, formed the
basis of Swiss cheese exports? The French offer a bit of encouragement.
“I believe that it’s never too late,” says Bobin. “You have to push the origins
of the milk, the place where the cheese comes from, in the mountains. You have
to work on seasonal factors, what the animals are like, explain what
distinguishes the product. You have to communicate it.”