Tuesday 25 June 2019

Spread the news: US consumers lapping up Irish butter

Grass-fed dairy a firm favourite

Kerrygold has gone from having a cult following, to becoming the second-biggest branded butter in the US thanks to its grass-based production
Kerrygold has gone from having a cult following, to becoming the second-biggest branded butter in the US thanks to its grass-based production

Siobhán Brett

A video clip of delighted Irish cows being let out to grass for the first time this spring, became a minor internet sensation in the past week.

In Britain, the BBC put a jazzy backing track behind the footage. After eight months of indoor feed and grain, the cattle appeared elated to be reunited with what Americans refer to as "pasture-feeding".

Grass-fed dairy is uncommon in the United States, and it's grass (and its constituent vitamins and beta-carotene) that's responsible for the yellow colour and distinctive flavour of Irish butter, a variety increasingly favoured by Americans. As of this month, Ornua's flagship brand, Kerrygold, is the second-best-selling branded butter in the US.

Kerrygold is rapidly approaching billion-euro brand status. In the US last year, Ornua sold more than 23,000 tonnes of butter. In recent months, Kerrygold overtook the previous number two in the market, Challenge Butter, a 107-year-old brand from California.

Now all that stands between it and pole position is Minnesota-based Land O'Lakes, a comparatively pale and bland but ubiquitous brand.

Kerrygold's rise is generating big interest. Last week I broke the news of Kerrygold's achievement for the US food and dining website 'Eater', where the editors were interested in the brand's "cult following" and "rise from humble countryside to American favourite".

Kerrygold arrived in the US less than 20 years ago. To have pulled off such a marketing tour de force, in a very short time frame, is rare; many brands and businesses fail to "crack" America altogether.

In recent years Kerrygold's status in the US has been galvanised in a variety of ways.

The distribution footprint, for a start, is vast. Gold and silver (salted and unsalted) butter pats can be found in stacks right across the US - from massively publicly traded retailers like Costco and Walmart, to independent convenience stores.

No longer is Kerrygold the preserve of gourmet or speciality markets, nor sitting alongside deluxe European imports like Isigny Sainte-Mère or Beppino Occelli.

Roisín Hennerty, Ornua's Illinois-based global marketing director, said her team took a methodical approach to promotion, doing much of it online. The adulation on the Facebook page of Kerrygold USA, where recipes and photographs are eagerly swapped by fans appears to validate this strategy.

Sales and marketing staff are dotted across American states and cities (including LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta, New York, Boston, Tampa). The US head office in Chicago hosts marketing, finance, IT, supply chain, human resources and central sales teams.

Authenticity makes the brand very easy to communicate, in Hennerty's view. "We are not re-crafting the story every year or going to an agency to have it made up," she said. "We're not trying to overcomplicate life. We come from a country with amazing old-world tradition and 80pc of dairy production for export because we simply can't consume it all."

The company hosts trips to Ireland for members of the US culinary press, taking them on tours of family-owned dairy farms, processors and to foodie favourites like Ballymaloe Cookery School, The Tannery restaurant in Dungarvan, Waterford, and the Butter Museum and the English Market in Cork City.

Grass-fed butter is higher in nutrients than its rivals. American consumers, like others in the Western world, are becoming increasingly wary of the idea of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. There is a compelling environmental rationale for grass-fed meat and dairy, too.

On top of that, butter, after decades of being feared and demonised, is beloved once more. Americans eating so-called ketogenic diets (high-fat, low carbohydrate, broadly) have enthusiastically incorporated Kerrygold into their meals.

"Butter is back," Mark Bittman of the 'New York Times' declared in a 2014 report. In 2015, an outlook by the American speciality grocery chain Whole Foods put grass-fed dairy ("the Graze Craze") in its top 10 trends to watch, alongside "plant-based everything" and fermented foods.

Ornua exports to more than 110 markets around the world and the Kerrygold brand - for butter, cheese, and now in the US a Baileys-style cream liqueur - is exported to over 80 markets worldwide.

Ornua has won over "average consumers" in many other markets with its butter, notably in Germany, where it is comfortably the market leader.

The European headquarters in Dusseldorf is even located on Kerrygoldstrasse, a purpose-built industrial street where butter is received in bulk from Ireland, then prepped for the local market - including adding the likes of paprika, garlic, black pepper, and packing the butter in tubs that can be inverted to act as butter dishes - for the German market and others.

Germany is seen as a model by the brand for further growth in America.

"If you go back 10 or 15 years, or to the end of the 1990s, we were small in the States and other imports were scarce," Hennerty said.

"Speaking to the culinary community, at that time, we might have argued that we were unique.

"But the category has beautifully diversified ever since. We're feeling confident and comfortable, having contributed greatly to that change."

Irish Independent

Also in Business