National Cheese: The Problems of Choice

Some little while before he died I had a conversion with my Dad about cheese. I’m pretty sure the conversation wasn’t directly related to his death.

He was talking fondly about something called “National Cheese”, which he insisted was the best cheddar he’d ever tasted. National Cheese seemed like a strange brand name and I briefly wondered if it was an offshoot of one of those failed “Buy British” campaigns of the 1970s. But no, it turns out that National Cheese was the only cheese type available for sale in the UK between 1940 and 1954.

Cheese Control

During WW2 the British Government, as part of its food rationing strategy, declared that only one cheddar cheese made in a particular way would be made available to the public for sale. All milk that normally went to make a wide variety of pre-war cheeses was instead sent to factories whose job it was to make this one type, which became known as “National Cheese” or “Government Cheese”.

 Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? (How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?) - Charles De Gaulle

Britain being Britain, the government didn’t end this ban on variety until 1954. It may seem strange to some that rationing continued up to that point but it had long ceased to be about the availability of food. British Governments, ever reluctant to give up powers granted to them, used “rationing” as a tool of a command and control economy.

Even after the controls were lifted, British farms took decades to recover their cheese making and cheese marketing skills. In 1974 the South-West of England still only boasted 33 farms making cheddar (mostly a single, bland variety) compared to the 500+ farms before WW2. Some varieties of cheese were almost entirely wiped out as those with the skills to make them died without passing on their trade.

We have just one or two farms to thank for the continued existence of Wensleydale Cheese, which was almost lost during this period. Without Wensleydale Cheese we’d have no Wallace & Gromit, not a possibility I want to dwell on.

But what has this got to do with marketing?

Segmentation

I recall my dad’s confusion at the huge variety of cheeses available to modern shoppers, this being what prompted his lecture to me on the wonderfulness of National Cheese,

We’re all familiar with the basic rules of price segmentation (consumers will always go for the middle option) but consider the challenges of product segmentation in a market that has become accustomed to no choice when long-established recipes exist for dozens of varieties, varieties which sold well only a decade or so previously.

At what pace do food producers re-introduce variety so as not to subject consumers to that oft-quoted first world problem of “too much choice”?

Or can a wide variety of choices be used to steer consumers towards the producers most profitable line, in the same way that pricing strategies can be used to push the most profitable options?

I don’t know the answer and, given that British cheese making didn’t really get back into its pre-war stride until the early 1990’s, neither did farmers in the post-war period. Government control had crushed the fashion for individuality, certainly amongst farmers and probably amongst consumers.