CHARLIE REJOINS FRENZIED TUNA WARS: STAR-KIST SPOKESFISH BACK IN ADS FOR LEADER OF $1.3 BILLION CATEGORY

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Sorry, Charlie. Even though H.J. Heinz Co. is bringing you back into Star-Kist advertising, industry executives think you might be given the hook again.

Star-Kist Foods is ballyhooing the return of its talking tuna Charlie "for the first time in almost 10 years" via a campaign for Solid White Albacore brand that broke last week in 15 markets.

This is at least the second time the company has claimed a Charlie comeback; in 1995, he appeared in test market advertising for what Star-Kist maintained at the time was his first appearance in 12 years.

Measured ad spending figures, meanwhile, didn't bear out any sustained campaign advertising -- with or without an animated tuna. In 1996, Star-Kist's outlay was a minnowlike $387,000. The next year it reached $1.3 million, followed by a 1998 high of $2.9 million.

TOUGH COMPETITION

That's likely due to cutthroat price competition in the $1.3 billion canned tuna category. So price-driven is the category that industry watchers said the Tuna Industry Foundation last year explored -- and dropped -- the idea of an industrywide campaign to boost tuna consumption.

"In this category, three guys beat the bloody hell out of each other on pricing," said a tuna industry executive who added he wasn't "terribly concerned" about Heinz's return to category advertising. "How many times can Charlie come back? They make that announcement every year."

A Heinz spokesman said he "completely disagrees with that," noting that Charlie's previous appearances were for test market efforts, not national campaigns. Adding that "I absolutely agree that probably in the last five years" Heinz hadn't committed to national advertising for Star-Kist, but he vowed that has changed. "This is the first time we've developed a complete program. It is a sustainable program."

LEADER HAS MOST TO GAIN

As the category leader, Star-Kist has the most to gain from building tuna tin sales. Its sales were $553.7 million for the 52 weeks ended March 28, giving it almost 44% of the category. No. 2 is International Home Foods' Bumble Bee, with $307.5 million, or 24.2%. Third is Chicken of the Sea International's Chicken of the Sea, with sales of $198.3 million, or 15.5%.

While Charlie may be a staple, the agency using him isn't. First created by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, in 1961, the tuna was floated again in the 1995 test campaign by the Tom Reilly Consortium, Evanston, Ill. In his current incarnation, Charlie comes to TV screens courtesy of Northlich Stolley LaWarre, Cincinnati.

The new spot shows Charlie giving a courtroom address, saying all tunas are not created equal. Asking jurors to "judge for themselves," the panel enjoys tasting the evidence so much they ask for more. The tagline is "Our best quality, best tasting tuna ever."

"The tuna category has shown significant growth in the albacore segment and other premium items," Joe Clancy, Star-Kist senior VP-sales and marketing, said in announcing Charlie's return. "There is no better way to capture attention and build loyalty for this new, improved product than by using our strongest, most beloved spokesperson, Charlie."

Charlie starred in a test earlier this year for a new value-added line of frozen grilled seafood marketed under the Star-Kist Seaside Gourmet name. The product went into three markets in January and has since been pulled from test.

"Tuna [marketers] have created one price war after another," said Burt Flickinger, a consultant with Reach Marketing. "It is the only top 10 category in which pricing actually declined in the last 10 years."

Information Resources Inc. figures show that pricing is a factor.

Dollar sales growth outpaced unit sales for the category. For the 52 weeks ended March 28 in food, drug and mass merchandisers, dollar sales climbed 4.8% to top $1 billion, while unit sales were up only 1.5%. Private label grew only 2.7% in dollars to $128.5 million, suggesting that consumers are finding comparably priced branded alternatives.

'A REAL CHANGE'

While competitors are sure Charlie won't last long, one analyst thinks he may not be a red herring.

"There's been a real change at Heinz with new management," said William Leach of DLJ Securities, saying Heinz may live up to spending promises. President-CEO

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