CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Clarence Birdseye may have done more to get Americans eating their vegetables than a generation of mothers and grandmothers combined. After all, Mr. Birdseye didn't just invent the commercialized flash-freezing process that kept garden greens tasty and convenient for weeks on end; he built the frozen-food category and its infrastructure, including grocery freezer cases and insulated train cars for their safe transport.
Birds Eye Foods, now a private company owned by Pinnacle Foods, has been through about a dozen owners in 80 years, but the brand's identity as a leader in frozen veggies has stood the test of time -- and it's done so since its inception with minimal marketing. Processed frozen food was a $97 billion category on a global basis in 2009, according to Euromonitor, and vegetables accounted for $10 billion of that worldwide. Some $3.3 billion of that is from the U.S., where Birds Eye is still the clear leader.
According to Euromonitor, Birds Eye owned more than one-quarter -- 27% -- of the $2.8 billion frozen-vegetable category in the U.S. during 2008. Its closest competitor is General Mills, with 20% of frozen-vegetable category sales in 2008. Market-share data isn't yet available for 2009.
"It's so essential to the brand you have this food pioneer who was absolutely committed to bringing variety and quality to American diets," said Sally Robling, chief marketing officer at Pinnacle. She added the success of such an ambitious introduction in 1929 and 1930 speaks to what was a real demand for frozen food.
Birdseye is an English name, and was bestowed on the inventor's family when an ancestor protected the queen from an attacking hawk -- by shooting it in the eye.
Learning from Inuits
A Brooklyn native and naturalist who'd completed three years at Amherst College, Mr. Birdseye was inspired by Inuit fishing methods while working as a fur trader in Labrador from 1912 to 1917. Mr. Birdseye observed that fish, when completely frozen quickly in barrels of water, could keep for several months and maintain its fresh taste. In fact, fish caught at -40°C froze instantly. And when it was thawed and cooked months later, it tasted better than what was available in New York City at the time.
Mr. Birdseye started experimenting in 1920, eventually developing and patenting a "quick-freeze machine," the first frozen-food laboratories, and a full line of commercial products. He also developed super-insulated railroad cars to enable transport of frozen foods over long distances. In order to get frozen products in grocery, Mr. Birdseye had to convince stores to lease freezer cases. At the time, some areas -- New York state among them -- had laws against selling frozen food because of the health risks associated with other processes.
Goldman Sachs Trading Corp. and Postum, soon to be called General Foods, bought Mr. Birdseye's patents in 1929 for $22 million. His products were first frozen meats, fish, fruit and vegetables that were sold in Massachusetts in 1930. Mr. Birdseye remained with the company afterward and was active in research and development.
"The first really brilliant marketing campaign was to make sure grocery stores had freezers," Ms. Robling said. She said that the brand's next big push came in the post-World War II years as the brand found ways to become part of everyday life by making dinner easier for mom.
Birds Eye's success was built on its innovation pipeline rather than any particular campaign, jingle or tagline. In fact, Ms. Robling admitted that she couldn't think of any. The brand certainly isn't a big spender, hovering around the $7 million mark in 2007 and 2008, according to Kantar Media. Spending doubled in 2009 to $14 million.
Steam in the freezer
Orphan brand buyer Pinnacle acquired Birds Eye in November, from private-equity firm Vestar Partners and Pro-Fac, an agricultural cooperative. Pinnacle Foods, which also owns Aunt Jemima, Duncan Hines, Mrs. Butterworth's, Van de Kamp's, Hungry Man and Swanson frozen products, is owned by Blackstone Group. According to Kantar, the entire portfolio spent $44 million in measured media during 2009.
Birds Eye's most recent innovation coup came in 2006 with the launch of its "steam fresh" products. The products were packaged to steam-cook in the microwave, resulting in a crisper texture and improved flavor. Steaming technology has since been adopted by competitors and provided a much-needed resurgence in the freezer section, which had suffered years of declines.
Between 2005 and 2006, according to Euromonitor, Birds Eye boosted its share more than three points, from 23.6% of the processed frozen vegetables category in the U.S. to 26.7%.
Ms. Robling said that Birds Eye will continue to innovate, working to get more exotic vegetables like edamame into American diets, and develop more products, such as those mixing vegetables and starch. The goal is to make sure consumers get their "five a day, the Birds Eye way."
Mr. Birdseye's inventions didn't stop with food. He established the Birdseye Electric Co. and invented a bulb-reflector combination designed for display lighting, more-efficient lighting filaments and heat-lamp technology. Birdseye Electric eventually became part of Sylvania.