Lean Cuisine Makes 'Massive Pivot' Away From Diet Marketing

Nestle-Owned Brand Seeks to Modernize With New Entrees, Ads

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Diet has become a forbidden four-letter word in the food industry, and Nestle's Lean Cuisine is the latest brand to swear off weight-loss marketing.

The struggling frozen meals brand has embarked on a major overhaul that includes new advertising, packaging and frozen entree options that are designed to link Lean Cuisine to modern eating and health trends rather than calorie counting.

New meals include sweet and spicy korean style beef; vermont white cheddar mac and cheese; pomegranate chicken; and other trendy options. The brand is also highlighting buzzworthy attributes like gluten-free and "No GMO" on some varieties.

Lean Cuisine Brand Manager Chris Flora called the new approach a "massive pivot" for the 34-year-old brand. Consumers "most closely associate us with being a diet brand," he said. "But we recognize that diets are dead and we want to show that we are truly shifting away from diet."

As the new foodie options hit shelves, Lean Cuisine is launching a TV campaign that seeks to build emotional bonds with female consumers by telling stories about how real women exhibit strength in their everyday lives. The campaign, called "Feed Your Phenomenal," launches in early July with a spot by Grey (above) that features a delivery nurse in Boston who ends her busy night shift by sitting down to a plate of mac and cheese. She credits Lean Cuisine with helping her "eat the way I want to eat."

As a precursor to the TV campaign, Lean Cuisine this week launched a social media campaign called "WeighThis" by 360i. The effort includes a video showing women near a scale. But instead of weighing their bodies, the women articulate -- or "weigh" -- their personal accomplishments.

The strategy shift comes as Lean Cuisine battles headwinds on multiple fronts. Consumers are not only rejecting diet brands, they are also increasingly shunning big processed foods in favor of fresher options. Lean Cuisine sales have dropped 20% in the past two years to about $800 million, Bloomberg recently reported, citing a Kepler Cheuvreux analyst.

"Fresh is winning versus frozen mainly because consumers view fresh as being less artificial and therefore better for you," said Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing.

The situation has grown so dire for frozen-food marketers that industry giants including Nestle, ConAgra, Kellogg and General Mills joined forces last year to launch a three-year, $30 million image campaign. The effort, called "Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh," seeks to portray the freezing process as "as nature's pause button."

Lean Cuisine essentially shut down its advertising for 18 months as it plotted its new approach. "We didn't really have a brand soul," Mr. Flora said. And "for us to really thrive in this marketplace we wanted to find that brand soul." Rather than using the new ads to simply tout Lean Cuisine's new food options, "we want to really connect with our consumer … and have that empathy."

But the changes to the food are a major part of the overhaul. The new approach groups entres into four categories: "Marketplace" meals are meant to take eaters on a "culinary adventure," and include options such as mushroom mezzaluna ravioli. "Craveables" include foods like pizzas and garlic chicken spring rolls, while the "Comfort" category comprises meals like steak portabella and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Finally, "Favorites" includes frozen meal classics such as spaghetti and lasagna.

The packaging exhibits the latest food trends with some labels calling out organic ingredients and high protein contents. A website describes the food as "freshly made, simply frozen."

The goal is to provide more choices for consumers whose eating habits have become "highly individualistic," Mr. Flora said. "They are making their own choices and they are trying to find things that are exactly for them."

But in one respect Lean Cuisine cannot stray too far from its diet roots. Because it uses the word "lean" in its name, the brand must adhere to certain standards, according to government regulations. For instance, meals must contain less than 10 grams of fat, according to rules cited by a Lean Cuisine spokeswoman.

The entire Lean Cuisine line-up ranges from 160 to 390 calories, which is generally in line with historical levels, according to Nestle. A nutritional document from 2012 shows that for that year most Lean Cuisine meals were 350 calories and below, with the exception of a handful of outliers.

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