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With a recipe of smart new products and consistent consumer marketing, Nestle Frozen Food Co. has transformed Lean Cuisine from a successful but dated diet food into a brand for the '90s.

Nestle hopes Cafe Classics, the newest product line under the Lean Cuisine umbrella, will continue the momentum.

The nine Cafe Classics entrees, rolling national this month (AA, June 27), are trying to carve a niche at the higher-price end of the freezer case with "bistro-style" foods: Herb Roasted Chicken, Sirloin Beef Peppercorn, Bow Tie Pasta & Chicken.

The entrees, which carry a suggested retail price of $2.69, will be among the most expensive items to be offered by Lean Cuisine.

In the past, Nestle and others have stumbled when they've tried pricey items with more exotic ingredients.

But Ed Marra, exec VP-sales and marketing, said Cafe Classics are meant to be "familiar but not trendy."

He also said those products priced at $2.79, including top-selling Glazed Chicken, already account for 42% of Lean Cuisine sales and give the brand a competitive advantage.

"Pricing all your products at $1.69 [like Kraft General Foods' Budget Gourmet brand] is a simple strategy, but it constrains you in terms of the things you can do, given the cost of ingredients," Mr. Marra said.

Cafe Classics will be supported by a full marketing campaign including TV and print ads breaking in early fall from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, with consumer and trade promotion by Impact, Chicago.

Lean Cuisine sales rose 13.2%, to $416 million for the year ended July 9, according to Nielsen Marketing Research figures. That nearly tripled the $5 billion category's 4.9% growth rate.

Part of Lean Cuisine's recent strength is Lunch Express, its 2-year-old line of lower-price entrees that were recently repackaged to be eaten out of the box.

Lunch Express now accounts for an estimated 15% of Lean Cuisine sales.

But other new products also have contributed. Low-fat macaroni and cheese has become Lean Cuisine's No. 1 seller in terms of units, while its chicken pot pie remains unchallenged by key competitors ConAgra's Healthy Choice and Weight Watchers Food Co.

That means Lean Cuisine, a new-product star of the '80s that was threatened by Healthy Choice's broader nutritional claims, is now off the endangered species list.

"Yes, our brand did get attacked hard, both by price competition and by Healthy Choice, but the rebound has been terrific," Mr. Marra said. "I think that speaks to the brand's equity, and to the fact that we've invested when others have not." .

Nestle accounted for more than half the frozen dinner and entree category's advertising spending in the past year, according to figures from Competitive Media Reporting.

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