Marketers increase kid-meal budgets

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An influx of at least $30 million in advertising will be spent in the coming year on convenient kids meals as ConAgra Foods and Nestle USA try to tap the growing demand to boost sales.

Although Chef Boyardee has long been positioned as an all-family brand, ConAgra plans to increase spending this year beyond its 2002 outlay of $16 million as it launches new flavors and its first meal-kit line targeted at kids ages 6 to 12. Likewise, Nestle will reach out to the younger set in a bigger way with the extension of Stouffer's Maxaroni line, slipped in last year among other adult-oriented frozen fare.

Later this month, ConAgra will launch an extension of its Chef Boyardee canned items called Twistaroni that features three rotini-based varieties developed especially with kids' palates in mind, among them Chili Cheese Dog and Cheesy Nacho. The line will be supported with a TV effort running June through May 2004 aimed at both moms and kids, as well as mom-targeted print and national coupons. The advertising from Fogarty Klein Monroe, Houston, plays up the special kid varieties.

The canned-pasta segment overall has slipped recently, with sales down 6.9% to $477 million in supermarkets, drugstores and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended April 20, per Information Resources Inc. Chef Boyardee, the leader in the segment, saw sales fall 3.2% to $180 million for the period. That is likely why the brand is being extended into a new category, dry dinner mixes.

Although she would not comment directly on the launch of Chef Boyardee Deep Dish Meals, a ConAgra spokeswoman said the company is looking to "revitalize" the Chef Boyardee brand, and part of that is to introduce products under the trusted brand name. Con-Agra will put more than $10 million in media toward the launch this October of Deep Dish, which features such kid-focused flavors as Cheeseburger Macaroni and Five Cheese Ravioli.

ConAgra's success with its dinner-mix line, Banquet Homestyle Bakes, likely sparked the entry, according to an executive for a Midwest wholesaler, but consumer interest in the category has already started to wane, she said. "The products don't seem to be doing as well as they should based on all the money they're pouring into them," she said. Sales of Homestyle Bakes dropped 2.1% to $98 million in outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended April 20, according to IRI.

Meanwhile, Nestle will up the ante on its first kid-targeted frozen-meal line, Maxaroni, launching special kid packaging and flavor combinations in late June. Varieties include Macaroni & Cheese, which launched last year, with other kid favorites including chicken nuggets and cheese pizza minis, according to a Nestle sales executive. The meals, intended to be merchandised with other kids' meals including Campbell Soup Co.'s Swanson's Kid Cuisine, will get far more in media than the $3.5 million TNS Media Intelligence/CMR said Nestle spent on Maxaroni in 2002. TV, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson, Los Angeles, will reach moms as it did last year during flights from September through November but will also include a kids media buy, with ads running July through October. Print and Radio Disney ads will run July through September.

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