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Buoyed by a more than 40% sales boom for its toddler food brand last year, Gerber Products Co. will mount the largest campaign featuring the Graduates line since the introductory effort in 1992.

A new $30 million ad and direct marketing campaign starting April 18 is designed to give a big push to Gerber's effort to expand its target market beyond infants, as well as increase sales of core baby food products.

"Our basic goal is to build consumption growth," said Robert VandenBerg, VP-marketing. "We're trying to gain our share in the baby food category as well as extending into" the overall food market.

The best potential for growth seems to be in the toddler food segment of the $748.7 million baby food market. While Gerber is king of the category with a 70% share, the marketer has seen its overall food sales decline 2% in the past year to $530 million, according to Information Resources Inc.

And Dean Witter Reynolds analyst David Adelman said the category's growth is declining, citing factors including the decline in the birth rate, babies staying on formula longer and children moving to solid foods sooner because baby food is more expensive. That means Gerber Graduates, a line of toddler food introduced nationally in July 1992, is of increasing importance.

Last year, Gerber Graduates' sales rose 41.1% to $47 million, claiming 6.3% of the total baby food market, according to IRI.

Gerber estimates the toddler food segment grew 62.5% to $65 million for the year ended March 31.

"Gerber is leading the way and expects other people to follow us in the category of food for the 1-to-3-year-old," Mr. VandenBerg said.

Since toddlers otherwise would likely be eating much the same food as their parents, Gerber increasingly regards its competition as not just baby food rivals Ralston Purina Co.'s Beech-Nut and H.J. Heinz Co.

Other rival products with toddler appeal include Campbell Soup Co.'s SpaghettiOs and General Mills' Cheerios.

It was Gerber's increasing push beyond baby food that led to the end of the marketer's three-year relationship with Grey Advertising, New York, in January. Conflicts that were emerging with the agency's other food marketing clients from the expansion of the Gerber Graduates line were cited as the reason for the split. Grey also handles ConAgra's Kid Cuisine and Dannon's Sprinkl'ins yogurt.

Already this year, Gerber has introduced diced fruit and plans to bring out other undisclosed products this summer in the Graduates line.

The new advertising was created by Noble & Associates, Springfield, Mo., on a project basis. Gerber handles sales promotion in-house, though Noble did some work on the creative part of the new effort.

"I'm surprised the Graduates line has done so well," Mr. Adelman said, explaining that he had doubts about the product because because of its expense, extra meal preparation time and children's tendency to want to eat what their parents do.

Mr. Adelman attributed Graduates' success to marketing. With the line, "Gerber has communicated to the consumer that this product is better" than table food for toddlers, he said.

Gerber's campaign, which includes one spot for the regular line of baby food and one for Graduates, bears that out.

A 30-second commercial for Gerber Graduates shows a blond, curly-haired toddler waddling around the house with the voice-over saying, "It's tempting to let him eat adult foods now, but his growing body still has special nutritional needs."

The TV spots are tagged "For learning to eat smart, right from the start." They contrast shots of children-and adults who very much resemble them.

Gerber's direct marketing campaign is fairly sophisticated, mailing incentives and information about baby food to parents of infants under 10 months old.

When the child turns 10 months, Gerber follows up with the parents by sending information and coupons for the Graduates line. Gerber also uses direct mail to introduce new products.

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