“Cheesepocalypse” and the Importance of the Velveeta Brand

Ad Age reported that Velveeta inventory is running low, just as Superbowl parties are only a few weeks away. This has created yet another media feeding frenzy. The Chicago Tribune calls it “Cheesepocalypse”. But the underlying reason is quite deep. Velveeta has earned our trust as a brand that hasn’t changed, and in the confusing world we live in, anchor brands are very important. Moreover, anchor brands like Velveeta often become part of a national tradition, a cultural touchstone that has meaning and value beyond the functionality of the product.

Velveeta was invented in Monroe, NY in 1908 at the Monroe Cheese Company. By 1923, it was spun off into the Velveeta Cheese Company and subsequently sold to Kraft Foods. In the early 1950’s, the product was reformulated into a cheese spread, and has not wavered since. Used as a base for dips, and in sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, it has been a staple in homes in North America and Canada. It is also an ingredient in dips at Superbowl parties everywhere.

Through careful control of the product manufacture, and a steady and foundational positioning, it has withstood the test of time. In many ways, that is the appeal of Velveeta. It really hasn’t changed. So when a rumor starts that it may not be easily available, consumers have a mini panic. All of a sudden they feel detached from a mainstay, and a cultural tradition – “Our Superbowl party just won’t be the same without Velveeta”.

But it is really a statement about holding onto a “brand” anchor that we know and love. Such a visceral reaction is a true measure of positive brand equity. We actually do care about products we adopt and like. So when they change, we get concerned.

One thing marketers and manufacturers need to constantly think about is the balance between improving a product vs. changing it. Brand equity is built through brand consistency in taste, performance, messaging and behavior. A change in any of these elements should be done very carefully. For products vying to become true heartland brands, there are important lessons about change embedded in the Velveeta story. It’s worth taking note.

One cautionary note: there is a fine balance between a good PR stunt and trickery. If Kraft is trying to pull a fast one and deceive us about a shortage when one doesn’t exist, they will have violated our trust. In that situation, the long-term loser will be Kraft and the Velveeta brand because the brand will have misled us just when we were most vulnerable. Like elephants, we don’t forget.

For me, I am going to rush home and make a chile con queso dip tonight. Just hope the stores haven’t run out of black beans and guacamole.