How Boar's Head Became a Deli Meat Beast

Marketing, Exclusive Deals Are Key to Premium Brand's Rise

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It's a staple in delis in every state except the Dakotas, is sold at Yankee Stadium and is even available in the Pittsburgh International Airport, where there is a cafe branded with its name. "Boar's Head is pretty much everywhere," said Mitchell Sejzer, who works in the deli at a Sunset Foods store in the affluent Chicago suburb of Highland Park, noting that the brand accounts for about 75% of the store's deli counter selection.

So just how did this brand -- which is oddly named after a swine's head -- get to the top?

Tight-lipped and private, the family-run company has muscled its way to the top of the premium deli meat category through aggressive sales and distribution tactics and a marketing budget that dwarfs its nearest premium rival in the largely commoditized category.

To be sure, Boar's Head does not hold a lunchmeat monopoly. Far from it: Cheaper private-label meats still control a majority of volume, said Jim Prevor, founder and editor-in-chief of Deli Business magazine, who also runs a blog called Perishable Pundit. But Boar's Head is the premium brand leader, he said, probably followed by arch-rival Dietz & Watson of Philadelphia, also a family-run, private company. (Market share numbers are not publicly available.)

Boar's Head is as secretive as it is successful. The company rarely grants interviews and declined to comment to Ad Age or to respond to emailed questions. But according to interviews with industry insiders and competitors, the company's rise is the result of a few key maneuvers. For one, Boar's Head invests mightily in its brand, especially for a lunchmeat maker. Measured media spending totaled $19.9 million in 2011, according to Kantar Media, compared with $7 million for Dietz & Watson, which is available nationally.

Boar's Head is also known for deploying direct delivery to stores while offering training to deli managers and constant on-site assistance, industry insiders said. "Those gorgeous hi-gloss, always-clean, red-and-black trucks serve as moving billboards and reinforce the high-quality image," said Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst who runs supermarketguru.com. The drivers include independent owner/operators as well as company-owned route operators, according to the Boar's Head website, which refers to the distributors as a "family of brand ambassadors."

Finally, Boar's Head negotiates deals with retailers that in some cases make its meats the only premium brand in the store. They "develop very strong relationships with top-level management at retailers," said Jen Ehresmann, director of marketing at Jennie-O Turkey Store, the turkey burger giant that also sells fresh deli turkey lunchmeat. And "once they get approval, they own and manage every nuance of [a deli] program. They will tell the retailer what other brands to have in the case. In many cases [retailers] have private label but [they] can't have competing brands."

Ms. Ehresmann made it clear she wasn't complaining. But Dietz & Watson has griped loudly. In 2009, for instance, the company blasted Boar's Head's approach after it says it was booted from Harris Teeter grocery stores in North Carolina once the grocer struck a deal with Boar's Head. "We want to win on quality and taste, not by cutting off competitors. That disrespects consumers. Yet that 's exactly what Boar's Head has been doing to grocery store chains across the country," Louis Eni, Dietz & Watson president-CEO, said in a statement at the time. Reached recently by Ad Age , a Dietz & Watson spokesman indicated the marketer is still concerned, saying "we still think it's better off for the consumer if they have a choice."

Mr. Prevor said the deals are above-board because "there is no legal exclusivity. The store can sell anything it wants. It just cannot sell it in the Boar's Head branded deli." Theoretically, a store could offer another branded deli elsewhere in the store, but "most stores would consider this a waste of space and don't do it." Mr. Prevor drew an analogy to other commodity categories with brands, such as bananas, noting that a store might not carry Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte all at once.

Chad S. Hummel, a lawyer for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who has handled anti-trust cases, said Boar's Head is simply protecting its brand, which is "perfectly legitimate." He added that "an issue might arise if an exclusive arrangement foreclosed on another supplier's ability to compete," but "while they may be blocked in a particular store, that doesn't mean they can't sell in other stores, or down the street , or in other channels."

But while legal, such deals are not good for consumers when it comes to the deli-meat category, said Mark Lang, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University and a former marketing director for Publix, which carries Boar's Head. When big brands take up all the space, the "first stuff that goes" are the "regional flavors [and] regional brands that have been around for a long time," said Mr. Lang, who consults for food retailers and manufacturers, including Dietz & Watson.

Boar's Head, which is now headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., began making its national march in the 1980s. The deals have worked well for big retailers, Mr. Prevor said. Boar's Head carriers, for instance, get an advertising allowance from the company and access to a larger-than-average meat selection. "Retailers have reduced their buying staff, so [they] are looking for an easy solution," Mr. Prevor said. "Once you decide you are going to be a Boar's Head house, you really don't have to do much work. Everything is sort of on automatic replenishment."

Boar's Head plows most of its ad budget into radio, where it sent $18.9 million of its $19.9 million in measured media spending last year, according to Kantar. The marketer's creative agency is Altschiller Associates, New York, while Horizon Media handles media and PR by Fleishman-Hillard. The Boar's Head Bold lineup, which launched in May, is supported with radio and digital ads integrated into Facebook games. The ads allow users to get game currency if they answer poll questions about the brand and sit through a video ad. (The campaign was handled by Glo Gaming.) The new offerings include Jerk Turkey Breast, Chipotle Chicken Breast and cheeses such as 3-Pepper Colby Jack .

The innovations come as deli-meat marketers seek to hold onto consumers that are increasingly trying other deli options, like prepared meals such as chicken and salads. In the 52 weeks ending May 26, deli meat's contribution to the $25.04 billion U.S. supermarket deli business fell 0.9 points to 22 .4% of total deli sales, while prepared foods increased their share by 0.8 points to 53.2%, according to Nielsen Perishables Group.

At the same time, competition is coming from more convenient pre-packaged, sliced-lunchmeat options. Citing proprietary research, Jennie-O's Ms. Ehresmann said almost half of all deli shoppers now purchase sandwich meats at least once every other week from the pre-packaged section of the meat department.

For its part, Jennie-O is trying to spark more frequent deli trips by plugging its fresh turkey, while taking on more expensive competitors such as Boar's Head. For instance, the marketer plans to soon publish the results of a taste test in which it says Jennie-O deli turkey beat other leading brands. Sara Lee Deli, meanwhile, is shifting more ad dollars into shopper marketing, which is more "synergistic" with retailer needs, said Tim Smith, director-marketing for Sara Lee Deli, owned by Hillshire Brands Co. (Sara Lee was the third-best-selling deli bulk-meat brand in the 13 weeks ending May 26, behind private label and Boar's Head and ahead of Dietz & Watson, the brand said, citing Nielsen data.)

Any way you slice it, looks like the deli competition is about to heat up.

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