Food marketers grapple with carb conundrum

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Food marketers are struggling to balance the reality that millions of consumers are counting carbs with an even surer reality that in a year they might not be.

At this year's Food Marketing Institute show, the packaged-food industry's biggest challenge was on display in every booth from the majors such as Kraft Foods to minors, including Manischewitz.

Figures on how big the business of "carb-controlled" products has become in the last year varies anywhere from $3.5 billion all the way up to $15 billion, and pundits' opinions vary as to how long such growth might last. Nearly every marketer featured low-carb products-especially in categories such as orange juice, cookies, bread and pasta that have been buffaloed by the trend. But many were clearly trying to reflect a broader diet focus, relegating low-carb activity to promotions and packaging that could be easily altered should the fervor fade.

`a test'

While General Mills has come up with a Carb Monitor banner that spans its portfolio from Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni to Pillsbury Frozen Dinner Rolls, the initial five items don't seem to be getting much in the way of marketing.

"It's almost like a test, as if General Mills doesn't want to make a full commitment on something they think is a fad," said one Midwest retail executive. But, said a General Mills insider, "if the carb trend continues to expand and sales increase, it will definitely go the full-blown marketing route."

General Mills will advertise its low-carb cereal, Total Protein, and its low-carb yogurt, Yoplait Ultra, but clearly it is not banking on low-carb alone as its sales savior. Its annual Betty Crocker Cookbook giveaway this year, "Eat and Lose Weight" focuses on a bigger diet message.

Campbell Soup Co. will focus this fall on how its portfolio of products fits into any kind of weight-loss plan through advertising that offers, "M'm! M'm! Good! ... No matter how you watch your waist!" and a Soup for Life diet that features soup as the "secret weapon for weight loss."

Campbell will cater to low-carb dieters specifically with a line of Carb Request soups and a CarbStyle bread from Pepperidge Farm. But its larger initiative speaks to the health and wellness credentials inherent in its existing portfolio: 23 soups and nearly 80 other Campbell products have 10 grams of carbs or fewer; 44 soups have three grams of fat or fewer and 42 soups have 100 calories or fewer.

Those facts will be called out in package bursts as well as in print and TV ads. A waist-whittled soup-can icon, for example, will be added to the "Campbell's Instead" campaign from Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York. In addition, V8 is touted in print ads as having half the carbs of orange juice, while V8 Splash and V8 Splash Smoothies are being reformulated to have less sugar than other leading brands.

Kraft is similarly straddling the low-carb diet trend as part of its own health and wellness platform. The behemoth is introducing a variety of reduced-carbohydrate items including salad dressings and cereal under the CarbWell banner that will get specific advertising, but Kraft will focus even more on in-store efforts, such as display cards that remind consumers that "When counting carbs, remember to count calories, too."

curveball

Packaging will call out the number of carbs and calories in existing products, and Kraft's portion-control offering, Nabisco 100-Calorie Packs, will be highlighted with display cards that entreat, "Counting calories? Count on Kraft." In recent months, Kraft has also launched a promotion offering three free workouts at regional health clubs such as Curves when consumers buy three participating Kraft items, and offers recipe cards in the deli section that feature four sandwiches under 400 calories.

"We want to have products that address the fact that consumers are interested in counting carbs, but our promotions show it's broader than that," said Kraft spokeswoman Kathy Knuth.

"We're not going out and getting crazy developing [low-carb] products, because they're a dime a dozen," said Hormel VP-General Manager of Grocery Products Larry Vorphal. Neither will Hormel advertise the low-carb nature of its existing products that have grown double-digits based on the trend, among them Real Bacon Bits, Spam, chunk meats and turkey pepperoni. People are already finding these products in retailers' low-carb sections, he said.

For Tyson Foods, whose fresh-, refrigerated- and frozen-meats businesses are up as much as 10% on the low-carb trend, the message going forward will be a broader three-pronged nutritional approach: low carbs, high protein and zero trans fats. (Tyson is moving to remove trans fats from many of its poultry products beginning in June.) "We're going to push health-mindedness because the aging of the population is keeping that trend going," said Shawn Walker, senior VP-marketing retail.

not just jewish

Even ethnic-food marketer B. Manischewitz Co. is using the diet/health benefits message to expand beyond its traditionally Jewish target, which makes up just 2% of the population. Manischewitz will launch a variety of reduced-carb and reduced-sodium versions of its products, including Guiltless Gourmet chips, matzo and egg noodles, and will advertise its diet-friendly products in a print ad in Weight Watchers magazine.

Meanwhile, hard-hit high carbs are fighting back. Kellogg Co. will launch new Keebler Chips Deluxe Carb Sensible Cookies with TV and print in June to help reverse declines in the cookie category of roughly 4% to 5%, a Kellogg sales executive said. Orange juice marketers are playing to the longer-lasting health trend with a Light Orange Juice Beverage from Coca-Cola's Minute Maid that features reduced sugar and calories, and Tropicana's Light `n Healthy with 1/3 less sugar and calories from PepsiCo.

American Italian Pasta Co. will introduce a lineup of reduced-carb pastas to try to revive the category, which Dan Rennell, AIPC VP-trade marketing, said has dropped roughly 7% as a result of low-carb diets. The items under AIPC's regional pasta brands, including Mueller's and Ronco, are intended for people "transitioning off low-carb diets" and will be touted with an unprecedented $15 million in marketing, including print advertising that tries to educate consumers about "good carbs." Hershey Foods is also appealing to consumers shifting off strict low-carb diets with the launch of a 50%-fewer carbs line of Hershey candy brands, Carb Alternatives.

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