Áilín Quinlan hears why Ornua’s Kerrygold brand is enjoying such success in the US and globally
With its world-renowned Kerrygold butter and Dubliner cheese stocked by the top US retailers, rated amongst the highest-selling products in their categories in the States and praised by celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, one might forgive Iarlaith Smyth for enjoying even the smallest smidgen of complacency.
But no. The Mayo-born President of Ornua Foods in North and Latin America isn’t about to allow as much as a blade of grass to grow beneath his busy feet.
Kerrygold in the US is a success story he acknowledges, but one that required hard work, vision and time.
A golden tale it certainly is, with Kerrygold butter holding the Number Two slot in the US butter market, second only to the iconic Land O’Lakes brand, while within the Speciality Cheddar range the seven-ounce block of Kerrygold’s Dubliner cheese holds the prized number one position in terms of Shop Keeping Units (SKUs) in the States.
The US market has always been tough nut to crack, so it’s been a hard slog to get the brand to where it is today — and Smyth is absolutely determined to keep that growth steady.
“There’s great energy and enthusiasm about the brand here,” he explains. “We’re investing in the brand and sustainable long-term growth. We want to continue with the double digit expansion that we have enjoyed since 2006.”
And while these various Kerrygold products are, he acknowledges, “available in every retailer that you would want to be listed in — Costco, Wholefoods, Walmart, Trader Joe’s Kroger and Publix for example,” it’s a success, as he has already pointed out that has taken time to build — and one which requires significant and ongoing management and investment.
Ornua, to put it simply, is a dairy cooperative, which markets and sells dairy products on behalf of its members; Irish dairy processors and Irish dairy farmers.
Previously the Irish Dairy Board, the co-operative is Ireland’s largest exporter of Irish dairy products has €2 billion in revenue and employs some 2,300 staff and 14 factories around the globe. Its products are in more than 110 markets from the USA, the UK and Germany to Africa, Asia and Saudi Arabia.
The headquarters of Ornua’s US, Canada and Latin America is based in Evanston, outside Chicago, from where Smyth is speaking to the Irish Examiner.
Ornua’s US team totals about 60 people, around half of whom are based in Evanston — the rest are spread across a range of territories in the US.
“We’ve been in the USA since 1990 but it was in 1998 when we launched Dubliner Cheese, and in 1999 when we launched Kerrygold butter that things really took off,” Smyth explains.
Over the years, the organisation has used a successful mix of marketing strategies to promote its products to US consumers — it still does.
However, the growing desire by US consumers for sustainably created products — milk from Irish grass-fed cattle — and the superb taste that comes with the products made from that milk, has held enormous benefits for Ornua.
Between 1999 and 2005 the company focused in the deli speciality area, promoting its brand through store-based demos and tasting.
From about 2006 there was a noticeable shift by consumers away from margarine and towards butter and high-end cheese.
The group started advertising in the print media, primarily in culinary magazines and, from about 2011 Kerrygold products in the US entered a state of extremely rapid growth.
“Butter was now a good word and Kerrygold was in a really good position in terms of its image of sustainable grass fed product,” Smyth explains.
Comprehensive market research resulted in successful consumer-led new products such as a premium American-style ‘stick’ of Kerrygold butter — US-made butter is generally sold in this form — as well as a spreadable form of Dubliner cheese.
Exploiting the opportunities offered by social media was another inevitable route, while the brand was also strongly promoted on TV — first on local and regional channels and later via the continent’s huge cable networks.
“We hooked in with the cooking channels and the food, home and gardening networks, as we could go national by focusing on the cable channels.
“That really helped us with our category growth,” Iarlaith Smyth recalls, while adding that the group also widened its target market to encompass, not just the high-income households and niche food marketers but food lovers of all kinds across the board.
By 2016 Kerrygold butter was so popular that the objective was to nudge it to the Number Two highest selling butter in the USA — this was achieved — while the group maintained its Number One slot in terms of speciality cheddar. Within this category, the Kerrygold Dubliner 7oz block is the number one selling SKU (Shop Keeping Unit) in the USA.
The brand is very strongly promoted across all conceivable media channels: “Although TV is very effective and lets you make a big jump in terms of consumer awareness, you need the other communication routes on the spectrum,” Smyth explains. Hence Kerrygold’s TV campaigns are backed up by widespread publicity across social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram Twitter as well as in the print media.
“This way you’re able to hit the TV, the personal devices and the print media so you have to have the full spectrum — it’s something we do really well.
“In terms of growth, what we’ve been doing is building our brand awareness and our household presence,” he says. This involves growing Ornua’s distribution network and expanding its range of new products with new cheeses as well as a range of new formats for butter.
To this end, a shortly-to-be-released brand-new global advertising campaign punches home the message of Kerrygold’s roots by highlighting Ireland’s unique grass-fed cattle being reared on family farms:
“The campaign focuses on Irish dairy farmers and their unique grass-fed way of farming The success of Kerry gold is underpinned by Ireland’s grass-fed method of farming.
“The grass-fed product is very different to other products on the market. You really can taste and see the difference,” he says, adding that consumer base in the US has developed a deep affection for Kerrygold and its “very real, authentic and compelling story”.
This new US campaign is focused on bringing the international consumer close to the source of Kerrygold; back to the family farm and the grass-fed cattle, Iarlaith Smyth explains.
“The brand means something in terms of the co-op ethos that you are giving back to a farming family. That means something to people. We now have a very passionate and loyal following, so when people hear about Kerrygold and what it stands for they want to learn and try more,” Mr Smyth observes, adding that to this day a strong element of its marketing campaign is allowing products to be demonstrated and ‘tasted’ in stores.
“People see and taste the difference and they will buy it again and again.”
On top of all of that, the brand attracts what he terms “a huge amount” of free publicity, primarily because people “love our product and want to share information about it.”
The story of Kerrygold, he declares, is told and re-told by people of all kinds, shoppers, bloggers, culinary influencers as well as by celebrities like Kate Beckinsale and Sarah Jessica Parker.
“It’s very positive free publicity and that is because people here are so passionate about it!”