IT'S so simple Annem Hobson couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before: putting cheese, not chocolate, inside an advent calendar.
The 30-year-old, from Tottenham, is the unwitting inventor of the world’s first cheese advent calendar, born from a handmade protype which she made using cardboard and stencils in her London living room in 2015.
- Ilchester Cheese Advent Calendar, £5 from Sainsbury's - buy now
Annem spoke exclusively to Fabulous Digital for #BOSSINGIT, our series about ordinary women who have launched incredible businesses.
Unhappy in her job at a PR agency and wanting more out of life, Annem, who also runs a food blog, decided to quit her job in PR and go freelance.
It was while at home pondering her next steps that her cheesy brainwave struck.
She said: “I’ve always preferred savoury over sweet and cheese over chocolate.
"I was sat at home thinking of festive ideas for the blog and I started wondering if there was a cheese advent calendar out there.
"I started googling it as a first port of call and much to my surprise one just didn’t exist.”
So Annem took to Twitter and found lots of people tweeting the same question: why doesn’t a cheese advent calendar exist?
She said: “I knew at that point there was demand and a group of people out there like me.”
So Annem decided to take matters into her own hands. She went to her local Hobbycraft, bought cardboard and stencils and set about making her own DIY cheese advent calendar.
She then shared the instructions on her blog, So Wrong It’s Nom.
Annem said: “The next day I woke up and it had gone viral. It was picked up by Good Morning America and it made its way around the world.
"It started a social media discussion point and seemed to really resonate with people. I knew then that there was something in this.”
But by then Christmas was almost over and Annem decided to shelve the idea until Christmas 2016.
She said: “I wanted to wait it out a bit and see whether or not another company had copied the idea after seeing it online, but again to my surprise no-one did. I knew I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.”
So Annem bought the website www.cheeseadventcalendar.com and started a social media campaign with the hashtag #cheesenotchoc to try and capture public attention and turn her idea into reality.
She asked fans of her idea to pledge their support by signing up to her website, and if enough people signed up she would use the data as evidence of demand when it came to talking to retailers and manufacturers.
Annem said: “Eleven thousand people signed up in the space of four days and it managed to get a huge amount of press attention again, which for two years running for a product that wasn’t even a product was a lightbulb moment.”
Annem knew she had to take her idea further, but she had no experience working in the dairy or cheese industry and didn’t fully understand the relationship between buyers and retailers and products.
She said: “With my background in PR I knew about the promotion side but when it came to the production part I had a big black hole in my knowledge.”
So Annem called everyone in her phone book in the hope that ‘someone would have someone who would know something’ that could help her, and enlisted the help of graphic designer husband Michael with visuals.
She said: “I managed to find an old colleague who worked in licensing with insight into how to go about trademarking the term, a box manufacturer who made other advent calendars but had never made cheese before and a friend of a cousin who was a supermarket buyer and was able to give me some insight into how to approach the conversation with retailers.”
Armed with the data from her #cheesenotchoc campaign, including pledges of support from members of the public and press coverage, Annem picked up the phone and called seven different cheese companies to see if they were interested in meeting to discuss her idea.
It was only then that she discovered why a cheese advent calendar had never been made before.
She said: “It turns out it was a very tricky task. At the time there weren’t a huge amount of cheese companies doing miniature cheese and it would mean investing in new machinery to make it.”
It was in the cheese aisle in Sainsbury’s that Annem came across cheese specialists Norseland, then one of the only companies making miniature nets of cheese, so she called the number on the back of the label and after explaining her idea to the marketing department managed to secure a meeting in which she presented her idea.
She said: “I told them I didn’t have any upfront investment but I could effectively licence my idea to them and go into some kind of partnership whereby I’m getting a cut from the profit of the calendars and they’re helping with the upfront cost.
"They already had the cheese, all I was asking them to do was take the cheese they were already selling and put it in a different box, which I brought to the table.”
Norseland agreed to manufacture the calendar under their Illchester cheese brand, so Annem trademarked the term ‘World’s First Cheese Advent Calendar’ and signed her contract with Norseland in April 2017.
With supermarkets operating months in advance when it comes to Christmas it was a race against time to get the calendar into production and ready to launch for Christmas 2017.
She said: “It was really down to the wire in terms of factory time and space. We needed to find retailers and figure out how we were going to sell to them.
"Although we’d had a huge amount of press, alternative advent calendars were only just about becoming a thing, and with it being a new product people were really apprehensive.”
“We ended up convincing Asda to take a chance on us so we gave them all of our stock as our exclusive first retailer for year one. It sold out within a week - it flew off the shelves.
"Asda asked us to make some more, which was a fantastic thing for us, but at that point it was so close to Christmas that factory time had been allocated so we were only able to make a few more.”
One American fan was so eager to get his hands on one of the advent calendars that he flew to the UK from Boston just to visit an Asda store and get an advent calendar before flying home again.
Annem's Top Tops for Aspiring Businesswomen:
- Take a really deep breath, pick up the phone and ring up absolutely everybody that you know. What’s the worst can that happen? We all suffer from imposter syndrome and everybody’s worried about rejection and it’s a completely natural human reaction but if you make your mantra ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ it changes your perspective a little bit and makes you that extra bit braver.
- It’s okay to feel out of your depth sometimes and it’s okay to ask a million questions.
- Build up a community. Social media is an incredible powerful tool and that’s a key part of getting word out about your product in the early days.
- Find your target market. You don’t have to have something that’s gone viral, finding your target market for your product could also mean going to events or networking events - find ways to engage with the people who’ll be purchasing your product.
Annem said: “That was a real nuts moment and gives you an idea of the hysteria it created globally.”
By 2018, with a larger order from Asda in anticipation of demand, the advent calendar outsold all of the supermarket’s chocolate equivalents, making it their best-selling advent calendar.
Annem also won listings in Sainsbury’s and Booths, and began selling internationally in America, resulting in sales of more than £2 million.
This year Annem’s cheese advent calendar is once again gracing the shelves of Asda as well as all the major supermarkets, featuring eight different types of cheese including Applewood, Mature Cheddar and Wensleydale with cranberries (£8-£10), flavours voted for by the 27,000 fans signed up to her website.
The calendar has also launched in Australia and Canada for the first time, and Annem has unveiled her latest invention: the world’s first cheese-filled Christmas cracker (£3).
She said: “The whole idea was ‘I want a cheese advent calendar; one doesn’t exist so here’s how to make your own’ and now it’s turned into a global phenomenon. I got in at a good time.”
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