General Mills TV campaign aims to boost Helper line

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General Mills will significantly up the $11 million it spends annually to advertise its core Hamburger Helper line this year as it looks to maintain its leadership position in the increasingly competitive dinner-mixes category.

Improvements to the bulk of the Hamburger Helper line-the first for the brand in its 30-year-plus history-will be the focus of a large-scale TV effort from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, that begins today, as well as packaging changes and promotional efforts. General Mills spent $11 million in measured media on the brand last year, but the improvements have sparked an increase in ad expenditures "significantly higher than any spending levels over the last five years," said John Starkey, marketing manager for Helpers and Betty Crocker meals.

Hamburger Helper's dollar sales fell 0.5% to $237 million for the 52 weeks ended April 20, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks the brand's sales in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart. Mr. Starkey said, however, that Hamburger Helper's dollar volume in all outlets actually grew 5.7% over the last six months, driven largely by last year's new product, Cheesy Enchilada with Old El Paso seasonings, and the ads that supported that launch.

player influx

What cannot be disputed is the mass influx of players in the dry-dinner-mixes category, all struggling to answer consumers' demand for convenient dinner solutions. The biggest growth in the category has been in the dry dinner mixes with meat segment, virtually pioneered over the last couple of years by ConAgra with its Banquet Homestyle Bakes.

General Mills has entered the growing arena with its own Complete Meals, which will likewise be further leveraged this year with two new varieties-Beef Stroganoff and Italian Sausage and Penne-and advertising that touts the great taste of Betty Crocker.

But while Betty Crocker Complete and other entries in recent years including Oven Favorites have helped General Mills keep up with the competition, Lehman Bros.' analyst Andrew Lazar believes that product improvements to the core business is a smart strategy. "The hardest thing is to create a new brand, and if you already have one that resonates well with consumers, it makes sense to innovate, update and renovate on that rather than re-create," Mr. Lazar said.

In addition to its ad effort that plays to the taste-improving changes such as cheesier Cheeseburger Macaroni with the tagline, "Always a hit," General Mills will also extend the Helper line to include pork varieties. Based on USDA data showing that 60% of consumers keep pork on hand, three varieties will launch in late summer.

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