The bowl is where it's at for new frozen meal lines

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Food marketers are bowling for dollars, as new brands and varieties of all-in-one frozen meals in a bowl hit stores.

ConAgra will launch a line of Marie Callender's Bowls later this month in western states. Mars Inc., meanwhile, plans to extend its successful Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls line with 10 new varieties, backed by an estimated $20 million ad campaign. H.J. Heinz Co., wanting in on the action, will launch a new line of low-calorie, low-fat Smart Ones Bowls, backed with a $6 million ad effort in September.

The new efforts are part of the latest trend in the frozen-food aisle to offer consumers tasty, convenient and nutritious all-in-one bowl meals. ConAgra in late 1998 introduced its Healthy Choice Bowl Creations, billed as an easy lunchtime solution. Shortly thereafter, Mars launched its Rice Bowls line nationally, then last May expanded to include Noodle Bowls.


ConAgra, whose Healthy Choice Bowl Creations has posted roughly half the $107 million in sales seen by Uncle Ben's Bowls, hopes its Marie Callender's brand will help capture more sales. A $6 million TV and print campaign from Grey Worldwide, New York, will back the launch in western states in late October or early November.

Among the seven varieties are Lemon Herb Chicken, Country Style Beef Pot Roast and Turkey Breast Medallions & Stuffing. Suggested retail price will be $2.99.

ConAgra spent $1.1 million on Healthy Choice Bowl Creations in 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Meanwhile, Mars continues to innovate for its leading Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls, doubling the line's offerings with the addition of 10 new varieties, among them Chili, Lemon Chicken and Chicken Fajitas.

"The bowl delivery system allows Mars to extend into all food types, Italian, Mexican, American and Chinese, to fit the variety consumers are looking for," said an executive close to the company.


Rival Nestle USA's leading frozen-food brand, Stouffer's, offers roughly 50 varieties, and "the Uncle Ben's business will mirror that to give people a reason to stockpile bowls as a good meal alternative," the executive said.

To support the new offerings and maintain its leadership position in the increasingly competitive segment, Mars in January will launch a new ad campaign for the Bowls line.

The new effort, though still in development, likely will extend the "Satisfy your passion for good food" theme created in 1998 by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York. The aim is to reconnect women ages 25 to 40 with the Uncle Ben's brand with ads using sexual innuendo to tout the brand as contemporary, tasty and convenient.

Although the Bowls are all 98% fat-free, Mars does not emphasize that in ads to avoid scaring off consumers who view diet foods negatively, the executive close to the company said. Mars spent $16 million on Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls in 1999, a budget it is increasing this year due to the line's stellar sales growth.


The frozen-food category overall grew 8.2% to $4.5 billion for the 52 weeks ended May 21, according to Information Resources Inc. Although the top brands in general have grown, with Stouffer's up 8.7% and Marie Callender's up 10.6%, diet-positioned brands have suffered. Healthy Choice is down 9.8%, Smart Ones is down 2.6% and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine is down 45%, according to IRI.

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