Bel Group CEO Exclusive Part I: APAC cheese success requires product innovation to be hyper-localised

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Bel Group believes that innovation in APAC requires hyper-localised strategies to see success. ©Bel Group
Bel Group believes that innovation in APAC requires hyper-localised strategies to see success. ©Bel Group

Related tags Bel Group Cheese Localisation

Global cheese giant Bel Group believes that innovation in APAC requires hyper-localised strategies to see success, due to a wide variation in consumption habits across the region.

Bel Group is best known for packaged cheese brands such as The Laughing Cow and Babybel, and throughout its 159-year history has established a presence in some 130 markets worldwide, many of which are located in the Asia Pacific region.

According to Bel Group CEO Cecile Beliot, this long experience in the cheese industry has enabled the company to identify several prominent cheese-specific trends in this region, which in turn have helped it to customise product innovations to local tastes.

“In European markets such as France, Germany or Italy cheese is very much considered part of culture and tradition, so innovation can usually apply across the board for the region – but not so here in Asia,”​ Beliot told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“Across the many markets in this region, we have seen that every single market has its own different, unique habits when it comes to cheese consumption, so there can be no one-size-fits-all strategy here.

“For instance, we know that in India dairy is pretty much an embedded part of the cuisine and used not only for direct consumption but also in cooking, so in India consumers are very keen on the traditional taste of cheese and products such as the cheese triangles or sachet packs will do well as long as these are available at an accessible price.

“But this is very different in many other Asian markets, where consumers are not used to dairy consumption and cheese is considered a small, niche or even nascent market - even though it is growing due to an increasing understanding of the nutrition and wellness benefits which are concentrated in cheese, there are many pockets of consumers that simply do not like the taste of natural cheese.”

Faced with the challenge of innovating products that appeal to Asian consumers that are less keen on conventional cheese items, Bel opted to localise its offerings for every single market it was in to ensure it was catering to as many local consumers as possible.

“One very good example of our localisation is in China, where dairy awareness and acceptance has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, but cheese did not expand at the same speed – the strategy we employed was to turn cheese here into a dessert as it was much more quickly accepted in this form,”​ she said.

“So in China, the cheese market is essentially sweet, and our Laughing Cow cream cheese cubes are mostly sold in sweet flavours such as strawberry tart, lemon pie, petit chou and so on – which is perfectly fine as these still have the nutritional benefits that consumers want, just packaged in flavours that they actually like.

“Similarly, across the ocean in Indonesia consumers are also less keen on conventional cheese consumption methods but instead very fond of using shredded cheese in desserts – one of the most popular dessert items there is martabak with cheese and chocolate, which is pretty far out from the sort of cheeseboard cheeses that are commonly found in Europe, but what is important is that it works for local consumers.”

‘Asia’ is not enough

As such, Bel’s strategy across the region is straightforward – localise for every individual market, and not for a region, and develop the required expertise on-the-ground to keep it on track.

“These observations have led us to conclude that just creating ‘Asian’ products are not going to help us expand and grow in this region – there needs to be more work done to look at each specific individual market from China to India to Singapore to Indonesia and so on,”​ she said.

“This will need to be done every single time for every single market, and this goes well beyond just innovation as it is not about just new product development but instead specialised new product development that meets local market demands.

“We are well aware now that we will not be able to achieve this sort of speed with just an innovation team located in Paris – there needs to be local R&D teams on the ground in each market or at least strong local partnerships to achieve this, especially in markets like China where the speed of innovation needed is very, very fast.”

Beyond product development and innovation, Belise also highlighted the importance of retail across both modern e-commerce platforms and more traditional brick-and-mortar stores such as mom-and-pop shops.

“There also needs to be a good understanding of local sales channels in order to get new products out there, such as in India where the market is super complex with tens of millions of stores,”​ she said.

“The thing is that many of these stores are in a format completely different from those in other markets, and without the local know-how it will be impossible to penetrate these, but without presence in these stores then exposure to certain parts of the market will be limited, so the best way is to partner with local industry experts to ensure we have this reach.”

In India, Bel has entered a joint venture with bakery heavyweight Britannia which has already provided it with entrance into the market, local regulatory expertise, as well as coverage in some six million stores nationwide.


Stay tuned for Part II of this exclusive interview where Belise will discuss the generational shift in cheese consumption, alternative protein cheeses, sustainability challenges and more.

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