Say Cheese…integrating cheese more deeply into our food culture

Hamsini Shivakumar and Kanika Yadav of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting talk about how branded content should be actively placed at the forefront of the cheese marketing effort

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Products like paneer, tea, coffee, etc. are today understood to be an inherent part of Indian food culture. A small step back into history would reveal that this was not always so. These foods were introduced to India by the British and the Portuguese for example and we believe that their widespread adoption happened through an organic process of cultural absorption (syncretism) and culture change. This is not entirely true. Marketing interventions of varying magnitude in fact have played a role in the popularising of these products. Many staples of Indian cuisine are a result of sustained and timely marketing efforts that contribute to the spontaneous course taken by people within a particular culture. A more recent case of the same is Cadbury’s Dairy Milk replacing mithai (trans. sweets) as the proverbial “meetha” on many occasions. 

Consider, for example, the immense popularity of paneer in present-day India as opposed to four or five decades ago when it was limited to the Northern regions of Punjab. Paneer dishes are made even deep South. Paneer is the go-to option for most vegetarian Indians for increasing protein intake. It is used as a replacement for chicken, egg, or meat and thus actively experimented upon with dishes like paneer momos, paneer noodles, etc. How has a relatively unknown food managed to achieve widespread popularity? 

The answer lies in the founding and subsequent success of dairy cooperatives in India such as the most famous one - Amul. With the establishment of milk cooperatives during the White Revolution of the 1960s and afterwards, India enhanced milk production to the extent that it was not just fulfilling milk requirements but also had surplus milk to produce butter, ghee, and of course paneer! So not only was paneer more readily available to introduce into one’s diet, but it was also marketed as tasty protein food, especially in the vegetarian belt. 

Years later, the dairy industry might be facing a similar challenge or opportunity of pushing yet another one of its products into the market. An agricultural economy like ours means that a good majority is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. But as is often observed with multiple variables such as climate, irrigation, etc. playing the decisive role in yields, agriculture by itself is never enough. Therefore, agri-business as a model is more viable. As the largest dairy producer in the world, India is now moving towards value-added agricultural and dairy products. One such product is Cheese.

The Union Cabinet has rolled out a Rs 10,900 crore production-linked incentive (PLI) support for food products, including mozzarella cheese.  Four specific categories of food products were shortlisted by the government for support under the scheme - ready-to-eat foods, processed foods and vegetables, marine and seafood products and lastly, mozzarella cheese.  Even if the focus of mozzarella producers is the well-developed international market, there is still a lot of headroom for popularising mozzarella among Indians.  

How can cheese marketing help the growth of cheese consumption?  What is the opportunity?  And can branded content as a format of communication contribute?  These are the questions that we explore in the rest of the article.

Limited as it may be, international products like Cheese and Mayonnaise have laced Indian taste buds via QSR foods like pizza, pasta, burgers, tacos, and even momos. So, cheese is not an alien product entirely. Yet, its present market seldom goes beyond the urban demographic centres. There too, it is often thought of as unhealthy due to its high calorific value and due to its usage in what is mostly known as ‘junk’ food.  

So, the challenge that cheese producers in India face as they ramp up their productions and vie for the government’s PLI scheme is - to create consumption. Creating consumption entails getting people to alter their existing food habits and introduce new foods. While it has been done in the past with tea, coffee, and as we briefly just saw with paneer, changing food habits is a tough task. 

When we think of altering food habits, we are thinking of making changes to an existing food culture. Often culture change begins as an organic effort. There is no one authority figure in the culture dictating the new direction. It is a sequence of part-natural and part-spontaneous phenomena over time that eventually comes to constitute the culture change. As pointed out in the beginning, culture change processes also move from organic to organised. Both public and private institutions enter the spontaneous space to make it well-defined and steer the food culture in a certain direction, because they see the market potential. 

Where does cheese marketing stand at the moment? The efforts at promoting cheese consumption beyond pizza and pasta (acceptance built over the past 3 decades by QSR brands such as Dominos, Pizza Hut) are largely organic at the moment. There are a number of chefs and food vloggers who are not just using cheese but also experimenting with it. For instance, Hebbars Kitchen, a famous food blog and a YouTube channel has posted a video of six cheese recipes: 

Some others have even posted DIY procedures to make mozzarella cheese at home:

So, people are actively engaging with this foreign food and getting themselves accustomed to the same. But when we examine the institutional effort - the organised effort to shape culture, change food habits, etc - we find that such an effort is at best a sparse one. At present, there are hardly any content initiatives by the co-operative or brands towards increasing cheese consumption. 

An old TVC by Amul highlights the flexibility and multiple applications of cheese via a lively rap: 

A good example to set the tone for our co-operatives can be the iconic “Roz Khao Ande” campaign by the NECC (National Egg Co-ordination Committee): 

A year-old campaign also by NECC: 

Moving towards brands we have an old TVC by Britannia that carries the message of health and goodness embedded in Cheese:

Interestingly, Britannia also came up with a branded content initiative: A twelve-episode series called “Britannia Cheese StarChef” with Saif Ali Khan and Shipra Khanna:

Over the course of twelve episodes, Chef Khanna teaches Saif Ali Khan many original and fusion dishes such as cheeseburgers, roll-ups, paneer nachos, vada pao, cheesy poppers, etc. An initiative of this kind serves multiple purposes: It is imparting knowledge of new recipes. The videos are at most fifteen minutes long, so cooking these recipes is not so tedious too. By including fusion dishes, the series makes use of the acquired taste that is already present and introduces cheese in it. It begins from a point of familiarity. Cheese won’t be so alienating in a vada pao, after all. StarChef by Britannia by far is one of the most comprehensive efforts at increasing cheese consumption. Those in the dairy industry can definitely use it as a guiding beacon. 

In our e-book, Branded Content: What’s Culture got to do with it? (available for free download here: we discuss how branded content is one of the most effective ways to bring about long-lasting cultural changes which includes changes in consumption patterns. By engaging consumers seamlessly that is without necessarily creating a break in their watching/scrolling experience, branded content really takes in the consumer and speaks to them from a point of trust. Therefore, it is a highly potent way to take for cheese marketers. A booming digital marketing scene and an increasingly influencer-dominated ecosystem make branded content especially functional. With branded content, cheese marketers get an unparalleled space in terms of time and creative liberty, that too in a cost-effective manner. 

Since the field right now is open, there is no dearth of approaches that a content creator can take towards making cheese more palatable. For starters, they can get influencers on board ala Country Delight: 

Popular YouTube chefs can be used for the purpose too. 

Format aside, at the moment, all avenues are open messaging-wise, too. As observed already, health, flexibility, experimentative applications, and taste, are some angles that a creator can adopt messaging-wise. Decadence and luxury are yet other angles that marketers can perhaps also associate with cheese. 

With paneer, butter, lassi, etc. already having reached market saturation, it is time for other value-added agricultural products like cheese to now occupy the front row. Now, with many promotional schemes already in place vis-a-vis manufacturing and processing, one may say that Cheese indeed is the next big thing.  Branded content should be actively placed at the forefront of the cheese marketing effort.

Hamsini Shivakumar Leapfrog Strategy Consulting Kanika Yadav Say Cheese food culture