Unilever lights a fire in the frozen sector

Unilever is to plough £60m into revamping its frozen food but actions, in the guise of innovation, speak louder than words, says Caroline Parry

Frozen food manufacturers are desperate to warm the hearts of shoppers who spend little time in the cold and unwelcoming freezer aisles of their local supermarket.

Sales in the frozen food category appear to be on ice as consumers are waylaid by the more interesting delicatessen counters serving ready-to-go hot food and chiller cabinets at the front of stores. But Unilever Ice Cream and Frozen Food plans to turn up the heat; it hopes to revitalise the category by relaunching its Birds Eye brand across Europe (MW last week).

The division is reviewing 115 products covering such categories as frozen vegetables, fish, potato products and ready meals. Some lines may go while new added-value products are likely to be launched. The refreshed portfolio could be marketed across Europe under one brand, with Birds Eye being the favourite to replace such names as Iglo and Findus.

The new-look range will be supported by a &£60m advertising spend across Europe. Unilever is reviewing the advertising account handled by McCann-Erickson and has invited up to five agencies to pitch for the business, including Wieden & Kennedy and roster agencies Bartle Bogle Hegarty and BMP DDB.

This is the second phase in Unilever’s overhaul of its frozen food business. Last year it spent more than &£7m in the UK repackaging and reformulating products in its children’s Captain Birds Eye portfolio. It was followed this year by the decision to rename its ice cream and frozen food division, previously known as Birds Eye Wall’s.

The full extent of Unilever’s plans for Birds Eye are not yet clear, but it is likely that the brand’s traditional positioning as a trustworthy family friend, which offers mothers meal solutions and healthy alternatives for their children, will be reinforced. The division is also developing new products aimed at consumers in their 20s and 30s, who have turned their back on the category in favour of fresh produce.

Most observers in the frozen food sector believe that any activity is to be welcomed. However, others point to the failure of Unilever’s Birds Eye Enjoy!, a range of prepared, frozen ready meals which, despite its success elsewhere in Europe, was delisted in the UK last summer due to poor sales. The demise of Enjoy! highlights the issues facing the frozen food category as a whole, which must be addressed if new growth is to be stimulated.

The category is seen to lack innovation and marketing support and is dogged by a consumer perception that frozen products are poorer in quality than fresh or chilled foods. It also suffers from an unappealing in-store environment, which has led to many retailers turning to price promotions in order to encourage consumers down the aisles.

This tactic has driven volume sales, but has also contributed to the view that frozen products are inferior compared to fresh. Nevertheless frozen potato, fish products and ice cream continue to sell well.

The overall frozen produce market is worth about &£3.2bn in value sales for the year to August (source: Information Resources). This is slightly down from 2002, when value sales were &£3.3bn.

One industry expert says that frozen food simply is not an area that retailers are seeking to encourage growth. “It is a notoriously difficult category to merchandise or promote; you cannot use the same techniques as you can elsewhere in store. Consumers need to believe that they must buy frozen products and without effective marketing techniques it is hard to persuade them.”

Williams De Broe analyst David Hallam also points out that the major supermarkets make substantial profits on their own chilled and fresh products and are therefore less inclined to promote alternatives. Enjoy! was a victim of this approach, he says: “The supermarkets have got a vested interest in chilled, prepared foods as they get big margins from them. It [Enjoy!] was an alternative to their offering, so they did not support it.”

This factor has increased the need for players in the category to invest in brand building and above-the-line activity. McCain Foods has recently launched a campaign called Chin-up, through its new advertising agency TBWA/London which, instead of featuring particular products, focuses on the McCain brand and what it means to consumers.

McCain Foods marketing controller Simon Eyles believes that frozen food manufacturers need to develop brands that have an emotional connection with consumers. “We need consumers to come into stores with a positive feeling about frozen food brands and products.”

Not only that, but McCain has invested in new products such as potato wedges and hot crisps. Rivals have also recognised the importance of offering consumers innovative convenience products that fit with their lifestyles, such as the Heinz Bite Me frozen pizza range (MW May 8) and Schwan’s Freschetta.

Steve Freeman, sales and marketing director for Schwan Europe, says: “While it’s generally a good idea to offer a broad range of products, in this category it is better to maximise profits on a smaller range, offering real innovation that you can’t get elsewhere. It is less confusing and more enticing for consumers.”

Unilever could do well to bear this advice in mind when overhauling its frozen food range. By concentrating on those products that capture shoppers’ imaginations it may achieve some success in revitalising the category – provided it can entice them down the aisles in the first place.

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