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From Velveeta To Spam, Old-School Brands Survive -- Even Thrive -- in Foodie Age

Classics like Hamburger Helper, Hungry Man Evolve With Variety, Customization

By Published on .

As quinoa, kale, hummus and even seaweed find a seat at the American dinner table, the prospects for the processed food brands of yesteryear might appear dim. After all, how can classics like Hungry Man, Chef Boyardee, Hamburger Helper and Spam possibly survive in an age where foodies are in and frozen is out?

Birds Eye Recipe Ready
Birds Eye Recipe Ready

But while these packaged-food stalwarts might have a perception problem, they are not going anywhere and still control large -- and in some cases growing -- swaths of market share. And to continue to stay relevant, brands from Birds Eye to Velveeta are entering a new innovation phase geared toward giving consumers the variety and customization they are craving, while staying true to their roots. Even Twinkie is making a much-ballyhooed comeback.

The reality is that despite the buzz about the changing American palate, our diets on a mass scale have actually remained pretty consistent. Sandwiches (including hamburgers), chicken and beef are the top three dishes served for dinner today, just as they were 10 years ago and 10 years before that, according to market researcher NPD Group, which follows food trends. (The only change from 1993 is that chicken passed beef.) "If you are a major marketer in this country, the things that are most important to Americans pretty much are going to be the most important things 10 years from now," said Harry Balzer, an NPD analyst. Consumers just want the "shiny new" versions of the standard stuff, he added.

The race to create these new items is well underway.

Consider Pinnacle Foods, a 12-year-old company which over the years has acquired a who's-who list of classic pantry brands like Birds Eye, Hungry Man, Vlasic, Duncan Hines and Mrs. Butterworth's – one of which can be found in 85% of American households. One by one, the company is pumping new life into these products with new advertising and innovations as it seeks momentum after closing an initial public offering in April.

"We see tremendous value in these iconic brands," said Mark Schiller, exec VP-division president for Pinnacle's Birds Eye frozen division, adding that the company's aim is to "create growth out of what somebody else has given up on."

Vlasic Farmer's Garden Pickles
Vlasic Farmer's Garden Pickles

New products include Vlasic Farmer's Garden, a line of premium pickles with extra vegetables and seasonings that are packed in a mason jar. Launched in 2012, the product has already achieved a 2.4% market share in the slow-growing pickle category with $18.8 million in sales in the 52-week period ending June 16, according to IRI. "Who would think you could innovate in the pickle category? It's cucumbers and brine," Mr. Schiller said. But by putting them in a fancy jar and adding ingredients like fresh cut peppers and cloves of garlic, "it's really resonating," he said.

The company, whose lead ad agency is BBDO, New York, also has a hit with Duncan Hines Frosting Creations, which allows consumers to create unique flavors by adding packets of flavor mixes like Mocha and Cherry Vanilla to a can of starter frosting. Pinnacle has even put new clothes on Mrs. Butterworth, with limited- edition packaging in which she might appear in a holiday outfit in the winter or with a belt buckle and cowboy outfit for Texans.

In the frozen aisle, Pinnacle gave up on the Swanson meals business in the U.S., discontinuing the one-time pioneering brand in 2010. But the marketer has stayed true to Hungry Man's roots, keeping the indulgent, man-sized meals but adding new flavors like "smokin' backyard barbeque," while plugging its new Nascar partnership. Mr. Schiller hinted at more new flavors on the way – and you can bet it won't be couscous or quinoa. "There is clearly a movement toward health and wellness, but the bulk of consumption is still in the mainstream, indulgent flavors," he said. "It's not like McDonald's is going out of business. There is still plenty of volume in the meat-and-potatoes market."

Chef Boyardee
Chef Boyardee

Marketers also remain committed to the classic characters that have been with these brands since the beginning, often giving them new life in social media. ConAgra Foods' Chef Boyardee, for instance, has put more emphasis on the real-life Hector Boyardee (born Boiardi), who launched the brand in 1928. Recent TV ads splice in black-and-white archival footage of the late Mr. Boyardee making his original pitch from the early days about "real Italian ravioli."

"This is a brand that is built on nostalgia … it's part of Americana," said Brand Director Mike Buick. The brand's agency is DDB, San Francisco.

A teen-targeted campaign uses the chef's image on a Twitter handle labeled @ChefDontJudge, which encourages individuality, while the marketer has a new deal with Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush." The new marketing comes as organic brands like Annie's gain ground in the prepared-pasta category. But Boyardee remains king, with a 55% market share and $367 million in sales in the 52-week period ending June 16, according to IRI.

Beyond the box

Classic brands are also making new appeals to moms, realizing they are no longer looking for the kind of one-box solution for dinner that rose to popularity in the 20th Century when females entered the workforce in droves. Moms still crave convenience, but they want to put their own twist on meals by adding ingredients. This has given rise to a plethora a of new meal-starter products. For instance, Kraft Recipe Makers, which launched in June, includes a recipe and two sauces; consumers add their own meat and veggies. Kraft Foods Group is positioning the product as solving the "two parts of homemade cooking that often take the most time."

The launch follows Kraft's 2011 debut of Velveeta Cheesy Skillets, which includes flavors like lasagna that comes with pasta, seasonings and cheese sauce. Consumers add the beef and whatever else they want.

While moms might not have the skill or time to make dinner from scratch like their grandmothers did, they still want to "have a little hand in it," like sprinkling in chilies or peppers, said Senior Brand Manager Adam Grablick. "It's not just straight from the box or straight from the microwave," he said. Advertising by Wieden + Kennedy includes one spot in which a skillet-wielding studly man appears before a woman shopping the frozen aisle, declaring that "frozen lasagna makes the heart grow cold."

But Pinnacle's Birds Eye – whose founder Clarence Birdseye invented commercialized frozen food in the 1920s -– is hoping to prove that even frozen foods can be customized. That is the goal of the new Bird's Eye Recipe Ready line, which includes some 20 different versions of pre-chopped vegetables geared for specific dishes, like minced tomatoes, onions and garlic targeted for sofrito.

Even 76-year-old Spam is getting creative. Newer varieties include black pepper and jalapeno flavors that are shown on packaging as ingredients for stir fry and fajitas. Before you laugh, consider this: Spam sales in the U.S. have jumped every year since 2007, ending last year at $708.8 million, according to Euromonitor International.

Hamburger Helper Ultimate
Hamburger Helper Ultimate

All this new competition has spurred a major overhaul of General Mills' 42-year-old Hamburger Helper brand. While sales have suffered of late, the brand boasts that on any given weeknight, more than 1 million households are serving Hamburger Helper for dinner. Changes include shortening the brand name to Helper, while adding more varieties for chicken and a new line called Ultimate, which comes with pasta, dry seasoning and a liquid sauce. TV Ads by McCann Erickson show footage of Helper's ongoing nationwide sampling tour that features a red truck emblazoned with images of the four-fingered brand mascot "Lefty," who is getting more play.

"We can be your sous chef," said Elizabeth Laughlin, the brand's marketing manager. "We are a shortcut to homemade. We can give you the start and then you can finish it how you like."

Even if that means adding a little bit of kale.

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