KRAFT, WISH-BONE BET ON SALAD DAYS FOR VINAIGRETTES: HIDDEN VALLEY PLANS SUMMER EFFORT FOR RANCH

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Whether the lettuce is radicchio or romaine, the salad dressing will be vinaigrette. That's what the two category leaders are banking on this summer, with new campaigns and products to tap this year's hottest flavor trend.

"Vinaigrette is the Italian of the late 1990s or the new millennium," said David Bardach, senior brand manager at Kraft Foods, the leading player in the $1.34 billion pourable salad dressing category.

Kraft is introducing three new vinaigrette varieties-Classic Italian, Caesar Parmesan and Roasted Garlic. The new extensions will get tags in Kraft's existing ad campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, themed "Around here the dressing is Kraft," along with in-store advertising and free standing inserts.

Not coincidentally, No. 2 Lipton's Wish-Bone, a brand with a strong Italian-flavor heritage, is celebrating "The art of vinaigrette" in a campaign breaking this week.

ARTISTS' RENDERINGS

The commercial, from Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, paints the TV screen with vivid color in the styles of famous artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh and Roy Lichtenstein. There is no copy, just music behind the artistic renditions of new Sun-Dried Tomato, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil Vinaigrette.

Walton Clark, director of marketing for Wish-Bone, said Lipton opted to focus its TV advertising around the vinaigrettes while supporting its other varieties in print, via a recipe-style strategy that breaks in May consumer magazines.

Clorox Co., the No. 3 player, isn't betting the ranch on vinaigrette. Its Hidden Valley Ranch brand is running a new TV campaign, with ads from Y&R Advertising, San Francisco, focusing on its being the authentic ranch brand.

Bestfoods is hedging its bets with four new varieties, two in each camp-a Spring Onion and Italian Herb Ranch as well as a Chardonnay Vinaigrette and a Roasted Tomato Balsamic Vinaigrette.

CATEGORY SHOWING GAINS

Even before the big summer salad season begins, the category is showing healthy sales gains. According to Information Resources Inc., dollar sales were up 3.2% for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 3 in supermarkets.

While "a lot of categories over $1 billion are stagnant to declining," Mr. Clark said, salad dressing is posting robust growth because healthy eating "isn't just a fad anymore, consumers are moving toward a more balanced diet."

Also fueling the category, he said, is the growth of precut salads.

Mr. Bardach said Kraft has seen its share-until recently declining-recover because of product introductions and more focused advertising.

IRI figures for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 3 show Kraft's dollar sales up 1.2% to $429.4 million, even though units fell 1%. But Mr. Bardach said more recent numbers demonstrate bigger gains.

"Until April [1998] we were tanking, but for the full year [in food, drug and mass merchandisers], volume was up 5%," he said.

Contributing to the turnaround was a new line of dressings, called Light Done Right, and Special Collection, restaurant-style dressings introduced in spring '98.

Lipton, too, posted a substantial sales jump, up 6.5% to $216.9 million, according to IRI, while Clorox was up even more, 9.6% to $170.7 million.

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