The marketer is launching a new wave of products, product revamps and an estimated $10 million ad effort for the brand, this time focused on the declining pot-pie business. Vlasic last year relaunched its core fried chicken dinners with about $5 million in advertising, but that failed to spur sales significantly.
"Vlasic has had a rough ride since the spinoff [from Campbell Soup Co. in 1997]," said Andrew Lazar, VP-research analyst at Lehman Bros. "The main challenge to the management team has been reversing longstanding declining volume trends for Vlasic pickles and Swanson frozen foods, both of which never received much in the way of marketing support while part of Campbell."
With the $295 million pot-pie category stagnant and Swanson's entries down more than 5%, Vlasic is looking to boost sales and move into the premium segment to compete with the near double-digit growth of ConAgra Frozen Foods' Marie Callendar's line.
POTATO-TOPPED POT PIE
Its biggest initiative is the launch this month of a new Swanson Potato-Topped Pot Pie, based on the popular European dish known as shepherd's pie, which features mashed potatoes on top of a pie made with a meat and vegetable filling.
The new product will be supported with a national TV campaign that breaks this week from FCB Worldwide, New York.
Vlasic will run newspaper free-standing inserts on Nov. 7 to support the pies, which come in chicken and beef varieties and brown in the oven or in the microwave in their own boxes.
Vlasic also is trying to bring its Hungry Man Pot Pie further up the value chain, with a reformulation that includes increasing the size from 14 ounces to 17 ounces.
BOTTOM CRUST, TOO
It also is adding a full crust rather than only a top crust, and using all-white breast meat for the chicken variety instead of a previous mix of dark and white meat.
To support the reformulation, an NFL-themed FSI will run Nov. 28, followed by another on Jan. 16. The latter ad flags the pot pies as "bigger and better" and carries entry forms for a sweepstakes offering a grand prize NFL Family Room.
In January, the new Hungry Man Pot Pies likely will be featured in TV spots as well.
Marie Callendar's is the leading brand of pot pies. Its sales were up 9.6%, to $76 million, while ConAgra's Banquet pot pies-targeted at price-conscious consumers-grew 3.9% to $69 million for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 12, according to Information Resources Inc.
Swanson, meanwhile, fell 5.2% to $60 million and Hungry Man was down 6.1%, to $20 million.
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Mr. Lazar said the steps Vlasic is taking in new products and marketing for Swanson are in the right direction.
However, the marketer has had more success on the pickle side. New-product efforts such as Hamburger Stackers are driving double-digit sales gains in the category.
The reason, Mr. Lazar said, may be the "few large, entrenched competitors in frozen dinners."
In addition to Swanson and Hungry Man, the $4.3 billion frozen dinner category, up 13.4% for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 12, includes Nestle USA's Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine brands; ConAgra's Healthy Choice and Marie Callendar's lines; and H.J. Heinz Co.'s Weight Watchers Smart Ones.
The introduction of Heinz's Boston Market line is expected to pull sales from