FROZEN DINNERS ATTACK APPETITE FOR CARRYOUT;RECIPES, NOT ADS, ARE BIG BENEFICIARIES OF STRATEGY

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The days of $50 million ad budgets are over for frozen dinners/entrees, as marketers go back to basics in fighting a common enemy-takeout foods.

"More people are eating out," said ConAgra Frozen Foods Co. President Jim Smith. "McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Arby's-those are the competitors."

According to Con

Agra, 37% of all food was purchased in restaurants last year, up from 35% in 1991. As a result, top brands such as Nestle USA's Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine, Campbell Soup Co.'s Swanson, and ConAgra's Healthy Choice are pouring money into new, higher-quality varieties and ingredients rather than big-budget ad campaigns.

Nestle is tweaking the recipes of 50 varieties of Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine, for example, adding more turkey and real potatoes to Stouffer's Homestyle Roast Turkey and increasing the portion of its Lean Cuisine Macaroni & Cheese from 9 to 10 ounces.

EXPANDING HEALTHY CHOICE

ConAgra is expanding its Healthy Choice line with eight new recipes, including a grilled glazed pork patty, a roasted chicken and an herb baked fish variety.

But ConAgra will spend little on ads touting the changes-unusual considering the fact that five years ago it spent nearly $50 million a year advertising the brand.

"Healthy Choice is one of the most recognized brands" in the country, Mr. Smith said. "We didn't feel we needed to spend as much on advertising."

Last year, the company spent a mere $2.8 million on measured media for Healthy Choice dinners and entrees, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

That will be hiked somewhat this year for a print, couponing and network TV flight breaking this month. Ads are themed "Your green light to eat what you like."

The campaign, from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, targets carryout food in general, comparing a Healthy Choice offering to its full-fat counterpart.

One print ad shows a deli-prepared Philadelphia beef sandwich with the number "28 grams fat" encased in a red light; the Healthy Choice shown below with a green light is labeled "5 grams fat."

NEW CAMPAIGN IN NOV.

Mr. Smith said this is an interim campaign; another breaks in November and outlines the new Healthy Choice varieties.

ConAgra also is introducing a Butterball Chicken Requests line of breaded baked chicken breasts that will go up against fresh prepared chicken breasts.

A network TV campaign breaks Sept. 15, along with print and direct mail. Advertising, focusing on the baked aspect, is handled by Grey Advertising, New York.

ConAgra's Marie Callendar line won't receive broad-scale ad support beyond couponing, nor will its new line of Banquet Fat-Free Chicken Breasts.

Spending will be light as well at competitor Campbell, which dished out $6.7 million in measured media spending last year. But advertising will directly target takeout chicken such as that from Boston Market.

A national and spot radio campaign, themed "Swanson is the solution," breaks in early September and highlights a family waiting in an long takeout line wishing they had just bought Swanson. A. Eicoff & Co., Chicago, handles.

For the dinners and entrees, the company is planning a football tie-in called the "Great Swanson Freezer Raid," with an instant-win game in 30 million frozen-food packages. Eicoff also will coordinate local tie-ins.

The category's biggest spender last year by far was Nestle, dishing out $18 million in measured support for Stouffer's and $17 million for Lean Cuisine. Together, they accounted for more than half the category's $61 million in spending.

BIGGEST GROWTH BRANDS

A Nestle spokeswoman wouldn't comment on ad plans, but last year's budget helped make the two brands the biggest growth brands in the category.

According to Information Resources Inc., Lean Cuisine's sales in the $3.4 billion dinner/entree category grew 5.2% in 1995 to $533.8 million. Stouffer's "red box" entrees were up 5.1% to $498.5 million.

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