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McCain Foods International's potatoes have emerged as the little spuds that could.

Nielsen Marketing Research data shows McCain's dollar sales leaped 34.7% in 1994. And even though sales, at $24.9 million, are just a fraction of tater behemoth Ore-Ida's $470.6 million, Ore-Ida's dollar sales climbed only 2% during that time.

"It's simple," says McCain VP-Marketing Ken Neal, 38, in explaining McCain's gains. "We expanded into new markets and introduced new products. We paid attention to some traditional marketing practices."

Those practices, spearheaded by Mr. Neal, included a new Ultimate Fries line; a new umbrella advertising campaign for all McCain's lines; development of Five Minute Fries, the fastest-cooking on the market, and expansion of McCain's advertising into Michigan, Ohio, and the Carolinas.

"People buy frozen potatoes for speed and convenience," he says, explaining the development of Five Minute Fries.

In September, McCain hired Dallas-based Richards Group for its campaign. Together, they devised a character-based ad using a Claymation potato that wants to be a McCain french fry.

With these efforts, Mr. Neal is reaching out to make the McCain name known to consumers.

"When you're not the No. 1 one [branded consumer frozen potato] player, the question becomes `Who is McCain?'*" he says. And that's frustrating when, outside the U.S., you're the frozen french fry leader. "Not everyone knows we're the largest producer of french fries in the world," he laments.

Bet they'll change-fast.

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