ConAgra's Banquet Raises Prices, Brings Back Commercials

Value-Priced Frozen Brand Stretching Beyond $1 With More Food, Other Changes

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Banquet has updated its food and packaging
Banquet has updated its food and packaging Credit: ConAgra

ConAgra Foods has modernized its Banquet frozen meal brand after years of sales declines in an overhaul that includes recipe changes, a quadrupled marketing budget and a return to TV for the first time in six years.

Banquet generally has been priced at about $1 per box since it got its start in 1953. This fall, the brand rolled out updated meals, with recipe tweaks such as adding 20% more chicken to its pot pies and cream to mashed potatoes.

The changes coincided with price increases, taking classic meals such as Salisbury Steak from a suggested price of $1 to $1.25. New packaging moves the brand name below new food images and emphasizes the meals are made in the U.S.

"Banquet has always been at $1 price point. Even back in the '50s and '60s it has been at $1, through the inflation of the '80s," said John Pawlowski, brand manager at ConAgra, who joined the Banquet brand about 18 months ago.

Mr. Pawlowski and his team knew that with factors such as higher food and commodity costs it was time to move away from $1, but needed to figure out how to do so without frustrating budget-conscious consumers who still buy frozen dinners even as category sales continue to fall. For inspiration, they studied how fast-food chains morphed dollar-focused menus to broader value pricing.

Banquet is an opening price point brand, but "that doesn't mean it's married to a dollar. It needs to be the best value for our core consumer," Mr. Pawlowski said of the changes, which rolled out to stores in mid-October. The brand is seeing some initial volume declines following the price increase, though the drop off has not been as severe as anticipated, he said.

Some smaller meals kept the $1 price while other changes were made. The chicken fingers meal, for example, is now made with only breast meat instead of mostly dark meat. It still comes with macaroni and cheese but no longer includes a brownie.

The brand restage comes early into ConAgra's latest overhaul, which is being spearheaded by CEO Sean Connolly, who joined in April and has announced job cuts and plans sell the private label business and separate the Lamb Weston foodservice unit from brand names such as Banquet, Healthy Choice and Hunt's.

"Sean (Connolly)'s new priority is we need to invest where it makes sense and where the consumer is evolving and this was the priority brand with this strategy to kick that off," Mr. Pawlowski said.

Banquet was the No. 2 brand in the U.S. frozen ready meals category behind Nestle's Stouffer's brand as recently as 2008 and moved one notch down to fourth place in 2012, according to data from Euromonitor International. Euromonitor expects Banquet to pull in U.S. sales of $593.1 million this year, down from more than $1 billion back in 2007.

Now, Banquet is back on air with TV spots for the first time since 2009. Commercials that aired back then included a focus on Banquet Select Recipes meals and clearly pointed out their $1.50 price.

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Marketing spending on the brand is quadrupling, with plans for 80% of media spending to be devoted to TV and the bulk of the other 20% focused on digital. New spots from DDB California do not mention price, but instead show family moments including a mother and child eating Banquet meals together. At the end of the current commercials, a voiceover says "Now serving a better Banquet."

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Along with DDB, agencies that work on Banquet include Spark, Possible and Edelman.

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