Who would have guessed that among all the new products to hit the cheese aisle, the most successful would be sliced just a bit thinner than the rest?
Sargento’s line of Ultra Thin sliced cheese showed up in Nielsen’s (NLSN)report on 14 top product innovations, which also included products such as Tide Pods (PG) and Febreze Car Vent Clips. Each flimsy slice is approximately 1 millimeter thick, half the 2 mm for a regular slice. This difference translated to a new product line that has earned more than $130 million in two years from 2012 through 2013, according to Nielsen, which says it has accounted for much of the 6 percent growth in the “sliced natural cheese segment.”
“I couldn’t quite believe on the surface that there would be something breakthrough and dramatic about Sargento’s Ultra Thin Cheese,” says Taddy Hall, senior vice president of Nielsen’s Innovation Practice. “But people felt some tension around cheese. They love cheese, but cheese came with unwanted calories and fat. People were having a struggle with their sandwich making.”
Executives at Sargento, a Wisconsin-based company with net sales of more than $1 billion, were equally surprised. “It’s not something we would have launched and said, ‘This is the big one,” says Rod Hogan, vice president of new platform development. The company in 2011 had launched a line of “natural blends” cheeses that seemed to suit consumer trends, but they didn’t end up performing as well.
What resonates with consumers is the lower calorie count. The thin slices are about 40 calories each—a statistic the product team broadcasts clearly on the front of the package—compared to about 70 calories in a regular slice. Sargento also avoided unappetizing words like “light” and “diet” on the labeling, which its research found weren’t compelling characteristics to cheese eaters. “Consumers say, ‘I’m in control, I want the real thing,’” says Hogan.
Sargento spent about 18 months developing the very thin slices, which included tinkering with the equipment to slice the cheese thinner and insert paper between slices during packaging, so they won’t stick together and tear apart. The only catch so far: Many calorie-conscious consumers are using only one slice of the ultra thin cheese per sandwich. That’s never what a cheese company wants to hear.