Frozen-Food Rivals Plot Campaign to Halt Sales Slump in Freezer Case

Push By Nestle, Heinz, ConAgra, Others Could Reach $50 Million To Beat Back Negative Health Perceptions of Category

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You know you have a health-perception problem when a fast-food marketer takes a shot at you. So when Wendy's -- hardly the standard for health food -- makes a point of marketing its beef as "fresh, never frozen," the $70 billion frozen-food industry decided it had to do something.

Frozen-food aisle
Frozen-food aisle Credit: Katrina Wittkamp/Getty

The American Frozen Food Institute and the Frozen Food Roundtable, a coalition of freezer-case heavyweights including ConAgra, General Mills, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg Co. and Nestlé USA, along with retail behemoth Walmart, are pooling their might to launch a campaign that could reach up to $50 million in spending, according to industry executives. McCann Erickson is tipped to win the agency review for the push, whose goal is to warm consumers to the frozen-food aisle.

According to proprietary research from the organizations, 98% of products in the frozen aisle are experiencing flat or declining sales in the U.S., across nearly all categories. Driving these declines are more health-conscious consumers and their association of frozen foods with high sodium, sugar, fat, calories and preservatives.

In a document dated Feb. 15, the groups said they were seeking "proposals for the development of a consumer-facing campaign designed to change the way consumers think and feel about frozen food by promoting positive messaging regarding the benefits and attributes of frozen foods."

A major challenge, the group added in the document, will be to overcome taglines like Wendy's "fresh, never frozen," which capitalize on consumers' negative perceptions of frozen food.

A representative for the industry groups declined to comment.

In recent months, individual frozen-food producers have taken on the issue. ConAgra launched a campaign for its Healthy Choice and Marie Callender's brands to help consumers "better understand the benefits of frozen meals and experience frozen foods in a new way," according to a press release the company sent in March. Still, marketers have steadily decreased pricing on frozen entrees, according to a chart by Bernstein Research.

But changing consumer perceptions is not a one-company job and dropping prices to maintain volume is not necessarily a sustainable practice. The Bernstein research noted that while taking down pricing has helped better sales in the frozen-entree category, volume and sales remain in negative territory.

The group's industry conducted research beginning late last year and found that although the perception of frozen vegetables surpassed those of other frozen subcategories, frozen-food penetration rates are down across all age groups, with the highest losses among 35-to-44-year-olds. There are "significant concerns with the nutritional value and a general feeling that frozen foods are not as good as fresh," according to the findings. These concerns were often linked to the frozen-entree category.

Moreover, the longevity and convenience of frozen foods were once selling points, but they are no longer changing a general apathy toward the category.

The frozen-food players began early this year to build the skeleton of a multi-million-dollar campaign to target baby-boomer, millennial and Hispanic shoppers. It then issued an RFP to a number of shops, including Interpublic Group of Cos' McCann; WPP's Ogilvy & Mather; and independent PR giant Edelman, which in February conducted a consumer-insights study for the industry group. McCann submitted its RFP response in partnership with sibling PR shop GolinHarris, which recently expanded its relationship with client Walmart, an FFRT member. Omnicom's BBDO also responded to the RFP in the early stages of the process.

Nearly every PDF version of the agency presentations that Ad Age obtained included budget proposals totaling just under $50 million and messages aimed at changing consumers' health-related perceptions. For example, McCann presented a strategy to "redefine frozen" with the tagline, "Frozen. How fresh stays fresh," and a mix of tactics such as paid ads, sampling and integrating frozen- and fresh-food products in grocery aisles. A second proposal showed how the agency would "challenge assumptions" and overcome the idea that frozen has become a dirty word.

Edelman proposed the tagline, "Fresh just frozen," while Ogilvy offered "Open up to frozen."

According to the RFP, the plan is for a pilot campaign in select markets and possibly a national yearlong campaign with the option to extend it another 12 to 24 months.

Contributing: E.J. Schultz

According to the FFFT study featured in the group's request for proposals, these are the distinct consumer segments and their attitudes toward frozen foods.

Key frozen food purchasers Not purchasing frozen food regularly;
however, open to the idea of frozen as part of their meals
Segments not in either group
Stressed-out warriers: A cautious group, who, despite being concerned with the content of packaged foods are still making these purchases. This group understands the value of frozen foods and is open to indulging their food cravings, but nonetheless worries about the processing involved. Home-chef foodies: An engaged, knowledgeable and influential audience who are often looked to for their opinions on food. These consumers enjoy preparing meals from scratch, preferring to cook at home rather than eat out at a restaurant. Social activist anti-frozen: A conscientious group of consumers, who put a lot of thought into the food purchases they make. This group takes the time to read nutrition labels and is likely to consider not only healthfulness of their choices but also the broader impact of the purchases they make.
On-the-go eaters: Convenience-driven food consumers who are likely to be purchasing packaged foods rather than cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients and are generally less engaged with food than other consumers. Wallet-driven: Thrifty consumers, putting little value in other considerations such as convenience, nutrition or even taste. These consumers are less engaged with food purchasing than other segments. Young Followers: A trend-following group, who are food-engaged, but are unlikely to make choices based on traditional personal factors, such as taste. This group considers themselves to be somewhat knowledgeable but are not the influencers driving trends.
Families with values: Family-focused conosuemrs seeking value at the grocery store. These budget-conscious consumers are focused on making the basic food purchases that will satisfy the families they sit down to eat with each night.
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