Pop Psychology: Ready-Made Popcorn Gains On Microwave Brands

Harried Consumers Would Rather Buy the Finished Product Than Zap a Bag

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Microwaves and popcorn have been linked forever -- or at least since 1946, when kernels were one of the first items zapped by the appliance's inventor, Percy Spencer. By the 1980s, microwave popcorn was all the rage, marketed by brands like Micro-Pop, whose ads declared that "you shouldn't have to wait for great-tasting popcorn." But today even a few minutes might be too long for some consumers, whose obsession for convenient eating is sparking growth in the ready-to-eat, or pre-popped, segment.

Consider Orville Redenbacher's. Long known for its microwavable offerings, the ConAgra brand is moving aggressively into ready-to-eat, including breaking a campaign for its "Pop Crunch" bagged popcorn launched earlier this year. Ads by Venables Bell & Partners feature a talking crow and are set at mythical Orville headquarters building in the middle of a corn field. The product is described as "air popped for half the fat of regular potato chips."

The push follows the marketer's foray into ready-to-eat -- its "Gourmet" line hit stores last year. "Microwave popcorn at its inception was all about convenience, having only to wait three minutes to get warm, delicious popcorn," said Colleen Bailey, Orville's brand director. But "as times have changed, the definition of convenience has changed."

"You don't have to take the extra step of opening the box, opening the wrapper," and "hoping you have the skill to watch it appropriately so you don't ruin the product," said Beth Bloom, a food and drinks analyst with market researcher Mintel.

While microwave brands still led the popcorn category with $899.8 million in sales in the 52 weeks ending March 24, the segment grew just 0.84%, according to IRI. That compares with 11.9% growth over the same period in the ready-to-eat segment, which surged to $671.6 million in sales.

This is good news for marketers like PepsiCo's Frito-Lay, which plays exclusively in the ready-to-eat space with brands such as Smartfood and Cracker Jack. The marketer has expanded its traditionally white-cheddar-flavor Smartfood line with its "Selects" line that features flavors such as Parmesan herb and cinnamon brown sugar. PepsiCo has put very little traditional advertising behind the brand. But "with the category doing as well as it is," Smartfood could get "a little more [marketing] heft" soon, said Dave Skena, a Frito Lay marketing VP, who declined to elaborate.

Frito-Lay also recently introduced "Cracker Jack'D," which targets "on-the-go" adults with flavors like buffalo ranch and spicy pizzeria. Marketing includes a partnership with hip-hop act Macklemore & Ryan Lewis that includes co-created video content, a college tour and ticket giveaways.

The ready-to-eat growth is also inspiring players like SkinnyPop, a Chicago ready-to-eat brand that is marketed as having "no artificial anything" and is made from just popcorn, sunflower oil and salt. The 3-year-old brand has inked major deals with retailers including Walgreens.

Even as it pursues ready-to-eat, ConAgra has tried to bring more convenience to the microwave segment by pushing pop-up-bowl packaging that pops into the shape of a bowl. Still, the marketer -- which also owns the Act II microwave brand -- has lost ground in the segment to Diamond Foods, owner of Pop Secret. Diamond sales jumped 8.32% to $205 million in the 52-week period ended March 24, while ConAgra's fell 4.83% to $424 million, according to IRI.

"We're still really bullish on microwave," said Craig Tokusato, a Diamond senior-VP who oversees Pop Secret, which relies on movie-themed marketing. He cited a "singular focus" on the segment as the reason for the gains. That includes a quest for the perfectly popped bag: A Pop Secret smartphone app hitting the market soon will listen to popping and use algorithms to tell consumers exactly when to take it out of the microwave.

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