Uncle Ben's in a.m.

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Uncle Ben's will continue to move beyond its rice-company origins and tackle new competitors with the introduction early next year of a Breakfast Bowls line.

Since it first introduced Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls in a Houston test market in 1998, the Masterfoods USA brand has built a frozen meal lineup that now surpasses its sales of dry rice. For the 52 weeks ended Nov. 4, sales of Uncle Ben's in the frozen arena grew 50% to $189 million versus sales growth of only 3.5% to $175 million for the dry rice business, according to Information Resources Inc.

The new Breakfast Bowls, which come closely on the heels of Pasta, Mexican Style and Chili Bowls, are "part of [Uncle Ben's] transformation from a traditional rice company to a food company," and mark the first extension into the breakfast daypart, said Todd Thompson, marketing director for Uncle Ben's.

The new varieties, including Bacon, Egg & Potatoes, Apple & Cinnamon Pancakes and Seven Grain Cereal & Fruit, will play in the $12 billion breakfast arena, most specifically competing against Kellogg Co.'s $1 billion leading frozen breakfast brand, Eggo.

Uncle Ben's has increased its advertising significantly in order to make the transformation to a broader food company, doubling its measured media spending over the last five years. While the whole of Uncle Ben's $15 million ad spending in 1997 went toward rice innovations such as Boil-in-bag and Calcium Plus, dry rice only received $4 million of the $30 million spent on the brand during January through September of this year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. The additional $26 million supported various Bowls lines.

Breakfast Bowls will be supported extensively beginning in March with incremental TV, radio and print advertising from Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, as well as in-store sampling, displays and coupons.

According to Mr. Thompson, research with consumers has shown that, because they always ate rice with other parts of their meal, "it was natural to think of the Uncle Ben's brand as a complete meal solution." And, he added, since consumers "know the brand stands for traditional, quality, nourishing and family values, it fits very well with breakfast."

While other breakfast entries tend to be highly convenient in nature at the expense of a hot, complete breakfast, Mr. Thompson said, Breakfast Bowls will offer the "weekend breakfast people want in four minutes." Advertising will position the products as a great-tasting, nourishing alternative to other breakfast foods like cereal and frozen waffles.

As Masterfoods evolves the Uncle Ben's brand, it will likely extend it to additional arenas. Trademark applications filed suggest that the formerly rice-only brand could grace Dessert Bowls, Soup Bowls and a variety of sandwich and snack products in the frozen arena. But, Mr. Thompson said, the company plans a "balanced approach to growth," with the same degree of innovation and taste profiling brought to the frozen segment extended to the traditional business as well.

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