Raising the Hand

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General Mills could use a helping hand in fending off competitors to its long-popular Hamburger Helper dinner mix. Now it's getting one.

After nearly a decade's hiatus, the brand's campy Helping Hand spokescharacter returns to TV today in two ads that aim to show, as the voice-over says, how Hamburger Helper is "helping you make a great dinner tonight." The effort, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, comes as consumers are inundated with convenient-meal options from the country's top food companies.

General Mills is still far and away the leader in the $538 million dry-dinner-mix category, with a 75% share for its Betty Crocker-branded Hamburger, Tuna and Chicken Helper mixes. But, lest consumers forget the old favorite amid newer-fangled Unilever's Lipton Sizzle & Stir, Philip Morris unit Kraft Foods' Stove Top Oven Classics and Campbell Soup Co.'s Prego Pasta Bakes, the revival of the 24-year-old Helping Hand is a pointed reminder.

A contemporized version of the four-fingered friend, introduced in ads from Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, Chicago, in 1977, will appear in two 30-second spots, "Hint of Chicken" and "Magnet." In "Hint," the Hand dons a funnel to look like a chicken, inspiring mom to make Chicken Helper Homestyle Chicken and Mashed Potatoes for dinner. In "Magnet," the Hand rearranges the refrigerator magnets to spell "value size," inspiring her to prepare Hamburger Helper's Value Size Cheeseburger Macaroni.

Hamburger Helper was introduced in 1971 as an easy, economical way to make new meals out of hamburger. Thirty years later, the Helper line-still priced at roughly $1 a serving after adding meat-is still going strong, and with the economic downturn it stands to grow even stronger. Sales were up 8.6% to $405 million for the 52 weeks ended July 15, according to Information Resources Inc. During the period, Stove Top Oven Classics fell 2% to $61 million and Lipton Sizzle & Stir grew 155% to $35 million.

General Mills is also faced with a dizzying array of convenient dinner entries in frozen foods, among them the Pillsbury Co.'s Green Giant Complete Skillet Meals brand that General Mills stands to acquire along with Pillsbury.

The dinner mix is far from a hand-off for General Mills: Its Helper franchise accounted for about 5% of the company's total earnings last year, second only to its Big G cereal division. General Mills spent $17 million in media on the line in 2000 and has supported it with $4 million in measured media through May of this year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

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