Recipe for success: Pay attention to diet trends, but focus on taste

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Barilla America VP-Marketing Sergio Pereira has seen his share of health and diet trends come and go.

A native of Colombia, Mr. Pereira, 43, first got into the food industry soon after college with Procter & Gamble Co. in Venezuela followed by a one-year M.B.A. program at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. Landing at Kraft Foods in the salad-dressings division in 1987, where he stayed until 1995, Mr. Pereira was front and center as Kraft catered to the low-fat craze with its first fat-free salad dressings. It was a pivotal move, that decision to develop its own fat replacement, and one that helped send Kraft's declining $400 million salad-ressings business back on the upswing. It was a lesson well learned.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, following a blip outside package goods into telecom and Mr. Pereira is again staring nutrition trends squarely in the face. Having survived the low-carb phenomenon that slowed the double-digit growth of the North American unit of Italy-based Barilla Alimentali, a 125-year-old family-owned company, he is now embracing the next wave-balanced nutrition-with the launch of a high-protein, high-fiber pasta, Barilla Plus.

"Health? No, I thought the big thing would be taste," Mr. Pereira said of what he believed would drive the niche Barilla brand's popularity in the U.S. when he was hired seven years ago. And, in fact, the authentic quality of Barilla-as the tagline asserts "the choice of Italy,"-has been the central driver of Barilla's boom here from a 5% share of the $1 billion pasta category when Mr. Pereira started to a 20% share today.

Together with WPP Group's Young & Rubicam, Chicago, Mr. Pereira has sought to translate the 60-second emotional stories that play well for the company in Italian advertising into more function/benefit-focused 30-second spots for American viewers with a campaign featuring music from Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

Kirk Trofholz, president of Barilla America, said, "Where Sergio had made the biggest difference is in his wonderful understanding of Italian food and Italian culture and his ability to communicate that here in the U.S., which has gone a long way toward helping us build our brand here."

But the ads were just one piece in the puzzle. "What I've learned is that it helps to have a superior product," Mr. Pereira said. That and a decision to go national vs. its mostly regional competitors and to price all its pasta cuts from spaghetti to penne at 99ยข (other brands vary by type) have all helped boost the business from a virtual unknown to one that now gets aided-awareness scores of close to 90%.

Barilla was growing at a healthy double-digit clip for years until the low-carb trend hit hard last year. But with the category down 4%, Mr. Pereira said, Barilla still came out of pasta-fearing 2004 up a solid 9%. Why? Mr. Pereira's only explanation is that "with continued use, people see that it's more high-quality than other products."

REASONS TO BELIEVE

Now, though, Barilla is giving consumers even more reasons to believe. Even before the low-carb trend, Barilla began to explore ways to capture sales in the better-for-you arena of the pasta segment, which Mr. Pereira said now accounts for roughly 6% of the category and is expected to grow to at least 10% by the end of this year and 15% by next year.

"Consumers are becoming more educated and we decided to develop pasta that offers complete nutrition," Mr. Pereira said.

For busy moms-and those whose kids refuse to eat anything on their pasta except butter-Barilla has developed a pasta that delivers 40% more protein and twice the fiber of other pastas using a combination of chickpeas, lentils and egg whites along with flax seed (which also offers the much-touted omega 3 fatty acids).

The nutrition message will be front and center in the Barilla Plus campaign, which kicks off in print this month and on TV featuring Mr. Bocelli and the tagline, "Pasta plus so much more." But while health is clearly always something food marketers will hitch to, taste is still the truly crucial factor, Mr. Pereira said.

Just Asking

How much was pasta demonized during the low-carb craze? "When people were leaving, they were not coming to say goodbye. The research during the time period was that for people heavily into the diets, there was no way to convince them to buy pasta."

How many nights a week do you eat pasta? "Three, four or sometimes even five. The three things I like: pasta, fish and bakery products. My four kids are big fans of our tortellini and they can now recognize if they're eating pasta that's not Barilla. They also now will only eat real parmesan from Italy, not the stuff in the green can."

So it seems the telecom world just wasn't as tasty an opportunity as pasta? "I followed a colleague to Ameritech to take advantage of an exciting proposition, the supposed revolution in telecom, where the Baby Bells were getting into long distance. Even to this day, though, that still hasn't come true, and when that started to become obvious, I returned to the food industry and discovered that the former P&G CEO Ed Artzt-then executive director-was looking for people."

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