Quiet isn't a word often associated with children but, in the case of the kids' cheese market, it fits.
It's not that the big players haven't been busy, but that they haven't been particularly creative. And, in a market worth 10% of the total £189m cheese snacking market [Nielsen 52w/e 9 September 2010], experts believe kids cheese isn't keeping pace with current trends.
While kids' cheese has been as affected as any other in the cheese market by the over-reliance on promotions, the real concerns centre on a failure to capitalise on the demand for healthy lunchbox options.
Despite being perceived as a better-for-you option, kids' cheese has not benefited from the trend towards better-for-you lunchbox solutions as other categories have. According to Lou Ellerton, senior brand consultant at branding agency The Value Engineers, manufacturers need to wake up to the possibilites.
Parents, she says, are looking further afield for a relatively healthy, balanced snack in a form that will appeal to kids. "Kids' cheese players are suddenly competing for lunchbox space not only with each other, but with everything from Yoplait Choobs and Innocent Kids to Kellogg's Winders, Humdinger and Planet Lunch snacks," says Ellerton. "As yet, there's little sign that manufacturers have realised this, and they are in danger of falling into the classic trap of marketing myopia."
The main focus of attention for manufacturers has been making kids' cheese healthier, including investment in meeting the FSA's new salt targets for 2012.
Kraft Foods reformulated its Dairylea portfolio, including Triangles and Strip Cheese, at the beginning of the year. The range is now free from artificial colours, flavourings and preservatives, and April saw the launch of a TV campaign highlighting the changes.
Kerry Foods has also been busy. The company kickstarted the year by ploughing £6m into its Cheestrings portfolio to remind consumers of the product's 'real cheese' content.
More recently, the company promoted its new Cheestrings Spaghetti with a TV campaign focused on the strapline Hey, I'm Just Cheese! (see box), again playing the health card while appealing to mums and kids at the same time. In May, meanwhile, Bel UK almost doubled the amount of calcium in its Laughing Cow Original cheese triangles. The brand now contains more calcium than rival Dairylea.
But healthy makeovers aside, there has been a distinct lack of true NPD in the past couple of years. According to brand agency Dragon Rouge, the lack of innovation is recession-led and ties in with the growing trend for aggressive promotional deals.
"In a recession producers often focus on the strong sellers backed up by promotions and deals to ensure they're front of mind for the retailer," says senior consultant Deborah Carter. "There's an assumption that it is safer to concentrate on the core than to be creating ideas especially ones that need investment in recipe creation or new production capabilities. It is not a climate for risk-taking."
When producers finally do return to NPD, what direction should they take? Carter suggests looking to other food sectors for inspiration.
"Consumers are increasingly interested in provenance, so there may be smaller players who could capture the market with a "from the farm" story like Tyrrells or Dorset Cereals, and there is always excitement around a Walkers 'name a flavour'-style campaign," she says.
"It may also make sense to leverage the values of other brands in a children's offer. How about cheese cubes flavoured with Sun-Pat, or Cheddar fingers with a Marmite dip?"
According to Carter, "age-aspirational consumption", already prevalent in other food categories, is making itself felt in cheese. The Value Engineers' Ellerton agrees: "At an ever-younger age kids are starting to move away from foodstuffs formulated to appeal to their age group, towards what they perceive as more adult brands.
"There are signs that a similar phenomenon is starting to take place in cheese, with adult single-serve products becoming more popular with pre-teens and kids."
Dairy Crest leapt on this bandwagon when it rebranded the mini version of its Cathedral City brand in June. And Del UK's Mini Babybel, while not a kids' cheese brand per se, has clearly been targeting younger consumers. A recent stunt involved giving away 15,000 Babybel-branded space hoppers.
The kids' cheese sector clearly has everything to play for. But manufacturers need to up the ante if they want to maintain their place in the lunchbox and inspire desire in the playground.
Focus On Cheese