How old-school brands survive – even thrive – in foodie age

As quinoa, kale, hummus and even seaweed find a seat at the American dinner table, the prospects for the processed food brands of yesteryear might appear dim. After all, how can classics like Hungry Man, Chef Boyardee, Hamburger Helper and Spam possibly survive in an age where foodies are in and frozen is out?

But while these packaged-food stalwarts might have a perception problem, they are not going anywhere and still control large — and in some cases growing — swaths of market share.

And to continue to stay relevant, brands from Birds Eye to Velveeta are entering a new innovation phase geared toward giving consumers the variety and customisation they are craving, while staying true to their roots. Even Twinkie is making a much-ballyhooed comeback.

The reality is that despite the buzz about the changing American palate, our diets on a mass scale have actually remained pretty consistent. Sandwiches (including hamburgers), chicken and beef are the top three dishes served for dinner today, just as they were 10 years ago and 10 years before that, according to market researcher NPD Group, which follows food trends. (The only change from 1993 is that chicken passed beef.)

“If you are a major marketer in this country, the things that are most important to Americans pretty much are going to be the most important things 10 years from now,” said Harry Balzer, an NPD analyst. Consumers just want the “shiny new” versions of the standard stuff, he added.

Consider Pinnacle Foods, a 12-year-old company which over the years has acquired a who’s-who list of classic pantry brands like Birds Eye, Hungry Man, Vlasic, Duncan Hines and Mrs. Butterworth’s – one of which can be found in 85% of American households.

One by one, the company is pumping new life into these products with new advertising and innovations as it seeks momentum after closing an initial public offering in April.

“We see tremendous value in these iconic brands,” said Mark Schiller, exec VP-division president for Pinnacle’s Birds Eye frozen division, adding that the company’s aim is to “create growth out of what somebody else has given up on”.

New products include Vlasic Farmer’s Garden (pictured), a line of premium pickles with extra vegetables and seasonings that are packed in a mason jar. Launched in 2012, the product has already achieved a 2.4% market share in the slow-growing pickle category with $18.8 million in sales in the 52-week period ending June 16, according to IRI.

“Who would think you could innovate in the pickle category? It’s cucumbers and brine,” Schiller said. But by putting them in a fancy jar and adding ingredients like fresh cut peppers and cloves of garlic, “it’s really resonating,” he said….

Classic brands are also making new appeals to moms, realising they are no longer looking for the kind of one-box solution for dinner that rose to popularity in the 20th century when females entered the workforce in droves.

Moms still crave convenience, but they want to put their own twist on meals by adding ingredients. This has given rise to a plethora a of new meal-starter products. For instance, Kraft Recipe Makers, which launched in June, includes a recipe and two sauces; consumers add their own meat and veggies. Kraft Foods Group is positioning the product as solving the “two parts of homemade cooking that often take the most time.”

The launch follows Kraft’s 2011 debut of Velveeta Cheesy Skillets, which includes flavors like lasagna that comes with pasta, seasonings and cheese sauce. Consumers add the beef and whatever else they want.

While moms might not have the skill or time to make dinner from scratch like their grandmothers did, they still want to “have a little hand in it,” like sprinkling in chilies or peppers, said Senior Brand Manager Adam Grablick. “It’s not just straight from the box or straight from the microwave,” he said…..

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