Lighting a Fire Under Frozen


Generating some heat in the frozen food section has been the goal and focus of many frozen food manufacturers, retailers and industry groups in recent years, as they seek to rejuvenate the category, overcome consumer perceptions, and deflect increased competition from both within and beyond the store.

Those in the industry say they understand the challenges as they seek to bolster sales of frozen entrées, snacks, breakfasts, produce and desserts. “One issue with frozen is the fact that it’s a department where no one really works — you can’t ask questions like you can in other areas; you can’t smell anything, as you can in the other parts of the store,” notes Andrew Carnazzo, director of category strategy for Omaha-based ConAgra Foods.

Increasing interest in frozen products also means addressing shoppers’ existing mindsets. “Unfortunately, a number of consumers see frozen foods in a negative light, equating frozen foods to processed foods. The association is not surprising, but as we in the industry know, frozen foods are somewhat misunderstood,” says Rachel P. Cullen, president and CEO of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Food Products Inc. “All frozen food exists on a spectrum of processing — from completely unprocessed to completely processed. Most of the foods we eat on a regular basis lie somewhere in between.”

Despite some of the inherent barriers — including stiff competition from in-store foodservice operations, hot-food bars and the retail deli, among others — the frozen food section isn’t melting away any time soon, although growth has been essentially flat. According to research from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen, for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 22, frozens edged up just 0.8 percent.

Product Innovations

One potential catalyst for growth in the frozen food section is the introduction of new products. “The way we overcome any perceptions in the category is through innovation and getting people products and cuisines that they can’t get anywhere else,” asserts Amanda Tomek, manager of category strategy for ConAgra. “The quality, value and convenience of it are a chance for frozen to be the hero — the meal that is ready to go when you are.”

Many retailers have done particularly well spotlighting frozen foods billed as natural, organic, homemade or otherwise less processed. Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council (IFIC) released data showing that sales of natural frozen foods with “real” ingredients have risen.

According to Tomek, this is a dynamic area within the frozen category that manufacturers can focus on to help ignite interest and purchases. “We’ve definitely seen growth in natural and organic offerings, as well as gluten-free,” she notes.

Cullen, too, believes that the notion of “real” resonates with shoppers of frozen foods. “As the consumer continues to question and become savvy, they ask for foods higher in nutrients, lower in calories and salt, and made with ‘ingredients I recognize,’” she says. “At Ruiz Foods, one of our ongoing initiatives is to simplify our own products and to continue to respond to the consumer.” Cullen adds that quality and value are always top of mind as the company develops new products like the recently launched El Monterey Signature Breakfast Burrito line. To spur more innovation, Ruiz Foods has rolled out a new R&D center at its headquarters.

The demand for natural or “real” ingredients is evident across many frozen categories, including desserts. Earlier this year, Conestoga, Pa.-based Turkey Hill Dairy introduced All Natural Gelato, the only product of this type on the market, according to Ian Heagy, trade marketing coordinator. “We offer eight flavors, vetted in research, that have simple ingredients with the clean labels that consumers are looking for,” explains Heagy. The gelato complements Turkey Hill’s All Natural Ice Cream line, which was recently expanded and supported with television advertising, social media and trade promotions.

Julie Henderson, VP, communications for the Harrisburg, Pa.-based National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA), underscores the new product development trend. “We’ve recently seen several major players reformulating products to have a simpler ingredient list,” observes Henderson. “With many aging Boomers looking to lead healthier lifestyles, and Millennials leading the better-for-you trend, simplified ingredients appeal to both these major shopper demographics.”

She points to such examples as The Schwan Food Co.’s new frozen food health initiative, Nestlé USA’s product reformulations and Gorton’s goal of simplifying ingredients for its recipes by 2017. “We also see tremendous growth in smaller manufacturers with niche products — often natural or organic,” Henderson adds.

Innovation is also evident in a new line of individually quick-frozen (IQF) plain, simply processed beans from 13 Foods, based in Lewiston, Idaho. “We offer the consumer the choice of what to do with their beans,” says VP Linda Anderson. “In the past, frozen beans were only offered sauced or sprinkled into vegetable blends. We are unique because we heard consumers wanted to cook from scratch, but did not have the time or equipment needed for this to happen.”

Part and parcel of such efforts to attract consumers to new products is packaging. To that end, packaging was a major component of the recent overhaul of Glendale, Calif.-based Nestlé USA’s Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s frozen entrées.

At ConAgra, Carnazzo says that consumers can — and do — judge products by their appearance. “Packaging is absolutely critical. The average person spends less than 60 seconds looking at a category, so the emphasis on package design and impact is more important than it’s ever been,” he affirms, adding, “We’ve done a lot of work on our own packaging.”

Adds his colleague Tomek: “One way to get people to not think of food in a box is showing them food on a plate, with food photography on the package.”

Anderson agrees, noting that the packaging for 13 Foods’ beans was created in tandem with product development. “Our package visually draws in the consumer and talks to them about where the product is grown, why it is grown there, how it is grown and by whom,” she observes. “Today’s consumer wants to have a direct connection to the food they eat.”

Industry Efforts Target Consumers

Emphasizing the “locked-in” quality of frozen foods has been a centerpiece of NRFA’s Real Food. Frozen public relations campaign, which has garnered more than 227 million impressions through the use of storytellers, media partnerships, national news pitches and social media outreach.

This month, the campaign is focusing on easy holiday frozen food solutions for entertaining and celebrating, notes Henderson.

For 2016, she says that the campaign will aim for “a greater share of voice” in social and traditional media, and work to increase industry participation in programs and communications.

As part of that, NFRA is expanding its Cool Food Panel of bloggers and partnering with strategic online food sites like Tasting Table and Food Republic to reach broader audiences. Targeting the much-talked-about Millennial demographic, NFRA has teamed up with online news site Thought Catalog to spotlight quality meals found in the frozen food aisle via the popular Instagram social media application.

Hot Promotions for Cold Products

In addition to new product launches and industry campaigns, grocers and frozen food makers can help thaw any barriers to buying frozen foods through promotions, including those at the store, via traditional or social media, or through mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Henderson emphasizes the importance of developing sound strategies and goals for promotions. “According to Nielsen, promotion planning needs to be very purposeful to ensure promotion support is used to drive incremental volume to benefit both manufacturers as well as retailers,” she says, citing the differences in shopper types as one example. “Within population segments like Millennials and Boomers, there are differences in age, income, health and family status that dictate the need to examine more granular segments to understand shopper demand and respond accordingly with the right offering, merchandising and messaging.”

Anderson says that 13 Foods supports its IQF beans with a variety of promotional elements. “Getting consumer attention is just as important as getting the product into consumers’ favorite shopping locations,” she notes, adding that the company is targeting media to highlight the important qualities of its chickpeas, lentils and legumes. “Social media will drive conversations through ambassador bloggers, celebrity endorsements, health pledges and photography.”

ConAgra’s Carnazzo notes that technology is increasingly deployed as part of frozen food promotions. “People are definitely putting technology into their grocery trips. You can win hearts and minds before they even get to the store,” he points out, adding, “The retailers who are really winning are the ones most plugged into their customers and who are giving them more information.”

Traditional advertising can’t be overlooked either, adds Carnazzo. “These categories are incredibly responsive to advertising, and we realized that without it, it’s hard to grow the category,” he remarks.

Back at the store, sampling can help jump-start sales of frozen products, which, as mentioned earlier, don’t have the benefit of the “smell test” that places like the hot-food bar have in grocery stores.

Henderson points to research from MSLGroup and The Hartman Group showing that food purchase decisions, especially among Millennials, are driven by unique consumption patterns, budget constraints and spontaneity: “Sampling plays well in these decision-making criteria.”

“One issue with frozen is the fact that it’s a department where no one really works — you can’t ask questions like you can in other areas; you can’t smell anything, as you can in the other parts of the store.”
—Andrew Carnazzo, ConAgra Foods

“The quality, value and convenience of it are a chance for frozen to be the hero — the meal that is ready to go when you are.”
—Amanda Tomek, ConAgra Foods

“We … see tremendous growth in smaller manufacturers with niche products — often natural or organic.”
—Julie Henderson, NFRA

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