How the block of cheese became a staple in Kiwi fridges

by Paul Little / 25 March, 2019
Left: Des Britten. Right: Catherine Saunders with a round of Edam.

Left: Des Britten. Right: Catherine Saunders with a round of Edam.

The woman who made New Zealand grate.

If Catherine Saunders hadn’t been trying to find a way to get out of television, the local cheese market might look very different. She was a familiar figure on-screen – known for her appearances on Wellington magazine programme Town and Around and the Selwyn Toogood-hosted panel show Beauty and the Beast. But she knew TV careers were fickle – even in the early 1970s.

“I knew I had to find an escape,” remembers Saunders, “and I thought maybe I’d go into PR, which was just starting out. A few other people from TV had done that.”

The dairy industry was under threat with its main customer, bulk cheese-buying Britain, going into the European Common Market, thereby ending our privileged access to its supermarket shelves.

“I discovered the Dairy Board didn’t have a PR department so wrote to them saying I would like to discuss the future of the cheese market.”

General manager Arthur Ward invited her to a meeting. “I turned up in my Mary Quant teal and orange, tweed checked suit and hogskin gloves and bag, and got a job in marketing.”

There was plenty of marketing to be done. “Then, stores sold cheddar cheese like offcuts, in plastic wrap. There was no marketing.”

She thought there was room to grow. She convinced the board that advertising agencies did not all report directly to Satan and got permission to invite pitches, of which many were forthcoming. “The Dairy Board was an attractive client with great potential. We chose a small agency called Campaign with whom we had a unique relationship for the next 15 years.”


block of cheese

One kg blocks of cheese hit the shelves in 1976 and became an instant hit. Photo/Shutterstock.

Among other innovations at the time was market research, from which the Dairy Board had learnt that nearly all cheese was bought by women, who purchased no more than 500g every two to two-and-a-half weeks.

“The simple solution was to double purchasing and frequency.” Not that simple. “It required a huge transformation in a complex industry. We had to convince dozens of manufacturing cheese companies they had to rationalise their production and distribution.”

The promise of increased profits helped reconcile the cheesemakers to these expensive challenges.

Another crucial player in the success story was TV chef Des Britten, who was brought on to front ads across TV, radio and print. Cheese became New Zealand’s second-biggest advertiser after Todd Motors.

“Des was the jewel in our campaign crown,” says Saunders. “He had a weekly cooking show on TV and he was incredibly convincing. People trusted him. Shops wanted to know what he was going to be using on his show so they could get in enough stock to meet the demand that would follow.”

The bigger, 1kg block of cheese was launched in Auckland in 1976 and was an immediate hit. “Before long we had Foodstuffs and Woolworths begging to come on board.”

Saunders was still appearing on Beauty and the Beast, and Selwyn Toogood did his bit by working in references to the bigger block whenever he could. “We also introduced in-store sampling, with about 40 or 50 solo mothers doing that in supermarkets.”

People didn’t just start buying more cheese because they were told to. “We had gospel messages that went out – such as that cheese had more protein than meat, fish or eggs, which was true.”

It was also a proto-feminist enterprise. “I worked with exceptional male directors,” says Saunders. “I had my son Anthony in 1974 and my daughter Amy in 1976. They said it was fine to work part-time as long as I delivered the results.” And she did. “We quintupled the consumption in the Auckland region and got even better results nationally.” 

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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