2020 was going to be a big year for a small group of Pennsylvania farmers who know a lot about cheese—but little about event planning.
As spring arrived and COVID-19 cases rose, the group forged ahead, focusing on the goal of launching the state’s first “PA Cheese Month” in October.
Like many things in 2020, that didn’t happen. But something much better did.
“The Pennsylvania Cheese Guild’s initial concept was a dedicated month, similar to things like Philly Beer Week and Pennsylvania Wine Month,” says JoyAnn Fisher, MBA ’20. “The plan was to have all these sponsored activities and smaller events, but at the center of it all there would be a big, yearly in-person festival.”
The Pennsylvania Cheese Guild is made up of small independent Pennsylvania farmers who produce artisan cheeses and work together to promote and ensure the sustainability of the industry in the state.
“They are family farmers, they don’t work for big companies,” Fisher says. “It’s what they do, it’s how they live.”
With that in mind, Fisher and her fellow MBA students in the Fox Management Consulting (FMC) capstone course began working on how they could best meet their client’s goal.
The Guild hired FMC to help it grow its presence in the marketplace and showcase Pennsylvania artisan cheese and its cheese makers as a buildup to the October festivities. Fisher and the other students, led by project executive Lisa Paris, quickly realized there were big challenges ahead.
“We started work in May as COVID cases were climbing up again and it was becoming clearer that the event was not going to be possible,” Fisher says.
“As we came to understand what the organization ultimately wanted to become and where they were in their growth, we thought ‘Sure, we can spend your money to put together this amazing marketing plan to have this amazing event, but the reality is it’s not going to happen.’”
In order for the volunteer-run Guild to really do meaningful and sustainable marketing, it needed to have an integrated strategy that would ensure it had the right infrastructure and the right relationships in place to be successful.
“The cheese makers were struggling for time and money to promote their businesses and now with COVID, there was this additional layer of complexity that would prevent them from being face-to-face or having any sort of in-person event,” Paris says. “The project really evolved into understanding two core objectives. First, how can the Guild members solidify their presence in the market, expand awareness and promote their product. Second, how could the Guild strengthen the value it gives to its membership and grow its membership base at the same time.”
That’s when the conversation began to change. Instead of a single focus, the work took on a new approach.
“The students showed us a path of how to make some of the things happen that we always felt we could never pull together,” PA Cheese Month project manager Alexandra Jones says. “That’s the mentality of a lot of small producers, the ‘oh, that would be too much work’ or ‘we can’t do those fancy things’ way of thinking. But the students laid out how we could do it, how we could get the funding and the staff in place to execute the plan and really be a stronger promotional voice for cheese.”
The FMC team of six students, Paris and several advisors focused on short-, medium- and long-term deliverables. They outlined what could be done now and how the Guild could do it bigger and better over the next few years.
Recognizing that the industry has been traditionally an in-person enterprise, the team came up with some solutions.
“While you need to get into places like restaurants and groceries where your product becomes available, you also need to be direct-to-consumer,” Fisher says.
Facing the challenges of the pandemic, the farmers knew they needed to adapt to a new reality. With the students’ proposed strategies, some cheesemakers began to launch their first websites, offer virtual tastings and ship their products to customers.
Full execution of the plan presented to the Guild could take up to five years. But if the Guild doesn’t want to wait that long, there’s a plan for that too.
“We told the Guild that if you want to do it differently, here’s how you can do it and here’s all the small wins you can have along the way,” Fisher says. “Here are the recommendations strategically, business-wise, board-wise and financially. Here’s how you still get to that end goal.”
For now, everything’s on the table for the cheesemakers.
“We really ended up with a bunch of information that is the basis for developing a three- to five-year plan for the Guild,” Jones says. “That is really valuable. I don’t think we embarked on working with Fox with that outcome necessarily in mind, but that’s what they were able to deliver and to get that was really helpful.
“If we did this two years ago, before COVID disrupted everything, it would have been just as valuable of a plan for us. The students didn’t really get hung up on what’s going to happen in a couple of months, they really focused on a plan that would withstand any circumstances.”
For the FMC team, it was easy to get behind the client and deliver a good outcome.
“It was nice to spend time on something that was so real and actionable,” Fisher says. “We’re business students, we’re not farmers. But we can infuse small business tactics to help them take major steps.”
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