SUPERPREMIUM TREATS SUFFERING SOFT SALES

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Once-hot, superpremium ice creams and frozen yogurts have begun a meltdown as consumers-though still tempted by what's new-dig their spoons into midrange and health-related products.

"There is consolidation in the industry with basic premium and popular price segments," said Don Stuart, partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. "Your basic ice cream products, even superpremium, are a bit of a commodity these days."

Sales in the $2.4 billion ice cream segment of the frozen desserts category were up 9.3% for the 52 weeks ended May 21, according to Information Resources Inc. But those results were dominated by private label, whose sales rose 3.3% to $717.7 million, good enough for a 30% share. Unilever's midprice Good Humor, Sealtest and Breyers brands trailed as a distant second in this fragmented field, up 13.5% to $311.2 million and a 13% share.

Next came Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, which surged 46.1% to $223.6 million and a 9.3% share.

"Our growth has clearly been in premium, which is growing rapidly at the expense of economy and superpremium," said Dick Newman, VP-marketing at Good Humor-Breyers, whose freezer also includes the Klondike, Viennetta, Sealtest and Popsicle brands.

Many companies are saying that the frozen yogurt frenzy has hit a plateau. While the $619.4 million segment was up 6.1%, almost every player was down, with the exceptions of first-ranked Dreyer's surging 30.6% to $96.8 million and Unilever brands up 33.5% to $44.4 million. Still, grocers report making shelf space for the growing number of flavors and brands.

To stay solid, superpremium brands-a small part of the overall ice cream segment-have been trying new things like invading each others' territories, but with mixed success.

"Original superpremium chunky flavors have flattened out a bit," said Rob Michalak, director of public relations for Ben & Jerry's Homemade.

Still, Ben & Jerry's sales gained 7.2% to $123.7 million and a 5.2% ice cream share, while Haagen-Dazs Co. softened 7.2% to $134.8 million and a 5.6% share.

Bob Holland, Ben & Jerry's new CEO who replaced Ben Cohen early this year, is now seeking growth internationally and through franchises, Mr. Michalak said.

Also, marketers are exploring new health-related efforts. Grand Metropolitan's Haagen-Dazs is in a daze from the success of its new sorbet line launched in March. The company hasn't been able to keep up with demand, causing shortages and recalling a similar experience when it introduced frozen yogurt bars in 1993.

"It tripled the national sorbet category on impact," said David Gilman, co-principal of Gilman & MacKenzie, New York, public relations agency for Haagen-Dazs.

Mr. Gilman declined to provide revenues, but IRI reported sherbert/sorbet/ices had sales of $126.6 million, up 16%, for the year ended May 21. Haagen-Dazs had sales of $12.6 million and a 10% share.

Despite being a highly competitive category, frozen desserts get little ad support overall. Unilever plans to spend a total of $25 million on its brands this year, Mr. Newman said, including a campaign from June to August via McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, for Viennetta novelty follow-up Romantica. Unilever spent $27.8 million in 1994, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Haagen-Dazs is running a $10 million multimedia campaign from Partners & Shevack, more than double last year's spending of $4.5 million. ConAgra's Healthy Choice has entered the fray with a TV campaign from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, for Special Creations, its new low-fat line of superpremium pints.

For novelty marketers, trends come and go, but brand strength comes from inventive ideas rather than brand names themselves.

"Growth is in having a new product every year," Mr. Stuart said. "For novelties, the base ice cream brand is less important than in most categories because of co-branding."

Exploring the health aspect with novelty, licensee Eskimo Pie plans to marry Nabisco Biscuit Co.'s SnackWell's and Oreo brands. Though the introduction has been delayed from early '95 to this fall, some industry observers expect a hit.

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