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Frozen Food Study

March 17, 2023

Frozen Food study: The brands stay lazy
One thing becomes clear in doing a frozen food study. The past and present frozen food business landscape riddles with irony.

Most brands began as family-owned operations. Swanson, Marie Callender, Stouffer, and many others take their names from their founders. Now, Nestle or Conagra Foods owns nearly all of them. Consolidation rules the industry.

Do consumers really care?

Do they see the consolidation or simply see the individual brands?

More importantly, is the house of brands approach (instead of a branded house) fostering preference?

Or are consumers buying strictly on food type, price, or what shelf they’re on?

Answering those questions is a market research company’s bread and butter. But we see clues by examining the market shares of the brands, and what the brands stand for. So let’s begin this frozen food study by looking at the overall market itself, then examine some of the top brands.

This way, we decipher where opportunities exist. And underutilized.


The frozen food study: The market
The frozen food industry is a $53 billion business in the US, accounting for everything from ice cream to pizza to those little food bowls many of us eat for lunch.

While ice cream remains king, we’re more interested in those pizza and lunch/dinner brands spanning the frozen aisles at your local grocery store. And the monsters aren’t exactly little brands. DiGiorno, the leading frozen pizza brand, earns $1 billion in sales in the US, followed by Red Baron ($597 million), Totino’s ($377), and Tombstone ($290).

Oh, one brand is missing.

Private label, or store brands, account for $502 million of the frozen pizza market. And it’s rising. Sales for store brands have grown nearly 15% since 2013. Here’s the surprise, though. In multi-serve frozen foods (like what you’d make for dinner), private-label sales have dropped from $127 million in 2013 to $96 million in 2016.

So it’s not shopping for price that’s affecting its market share. Sales among those multi-serve brands are steady. Stouffers, the market leader, rakes in $710 million per year, down from the $753 of the year before.

But that’s certainly better than the $681 million in sales it sported four years ago. Stouffers is also the market leader in single-serve meals (what many us eat for lunch) with $518 million in sales, followed by Marie Callendar’s, Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice.

Are there different triggers between the sub-categories of frozen food? Does price matter more in pizza, but taste and healthy foods in lunches and dinners? Or is there something else going on? Let’s continue this frozen food study by examining the brands themselves.


The brands
Let’s attack this section of the frozen food study from both angles: Pizza and lunches/dinners.

DiGiorno is by far the market leader in frozen pizza. Owned by Swiss-based Nestle, it positions its pizza as being so good that you don’t need to order delivery. “It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno.” DiGiorno has double the market share of any other frozen pizza brand, although its percentage of market share has dipped some in recent years.

For TV viewers, it’s simply the most recognized frozen pizza brand with an advertising budget of well over $60 million. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach.

The bad: It’s simply telling you that it has good pizza. As a brand, that isn’t much of a differentiator from competitors who tout they have good pizza too.

However, there is a strong belief by many shoppers that frozen pizza is plain terrible. (Not to mention what we think about the delivery of those pizzas.) DiGiorno meets that belief head-on by saying it’s as good as delivery (unlike what you think about frozen pizza), so why go through the hassle of getting pizza delivered?

It may not be a brand-altering message. It may not spike sales. But it is at least strategic. In its newest campaign, DiGiorno still emphasizes choosing other than delivery, but now emphasizes the pizza crust.

As we’ll see, competitors promote pizza crust as well. And “Rise to the Occasion” lacks resonance.


The competitors of DiGiorno
Red Baron is the top of the rest of the competitors.

The rest? Bunched together.

Totinos, which bases a lot of its sales on pizza rolls, Tombstone (also owned by Nestle), and Jacks sit right behind Red Baron. Nestle obviously has different marketing staffs for DiGiorno and Tombstone because the latter is a lost brand. It still sports some of the Western imagery it’s always thrust forward, although less emphasized.

But it just stands for…good pizza, with the theme of “Get more of the good stuff.” Great!

Red Baron’s sales are increasing somewhat, but that’ll be short-lived. The brand is unfocused. Much of its advertising centers around its crust, a crispier version of what you normally find in frozen pizza.

The newest features moms sharing stories about how they took care of their kids, ending with a mom getting credit for serving Red Baron to the family.


Clever is your worst enemy
“Never fly solo” is a big ugh.

While it’s intending to position Red Baron as a frozen pizza to eat with someone else (like your family), it sounds like marketing.

It’s clever. And clever is your worst enemy in marketing. Once a brand slips too clever, it is jargon. We ignore jargon. “Get it? Red Baron? Never fly solo?” It isn’t persuasive. The slogan doesn’t create preference. It is branding that’s completely forgettable.

Totino presents an interesting case. Its pizza rolls make up most of its business, although it does have regular-sized pizza. Lately, it’s positioned the brand with an edict. Live Free. Couch Hard. Yes, it’s clever. But let’s be real. Most eat frozen pizza products in this manner, and the TV-binging crowd represents prime fodder for this product.

(In considering Red Baron’s position, families also buy grocery store pizza from the grocery deli. “Live Free, Couch Hard” is a whole other animal.) However, Totino’s really hit the big time when it became the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit last year.


Frozen Meals
The frozen meal category breaks into two parts by the industry itself. Multi-service and single-serve.

But, for purposes of this frozen food study, it doesn’t matter how you break it up. Stouffers (also owned by Nestle) is the market leader, with more than a billion dollars in sales annually between the two markets. Its brand positioning isn’t all that different from its competition because it’s playing defense.

It’s outspending the competition while simply talking about its fresh ingredients. The “made for you to love” line is simply about taste and ingredients. It’s simply a product benefit that only helps the market as a whole. The thinking is that, if the market grows, the market leader becomes the default choice – so its sales will grow along with it, usually at a faster rate than the sales of the competition.

It’s not all that different than Walmart saying it has low prices because that’s what the rest of the retail industry also says. As the market leader, it becomes the default choice if you buy on price. Of course, that presents an opportunity if competitors are willing to take it.

To steal market share, you must be different and better than your competition. Fortunately for Stouffers, the competition isn’t any better. And sometimes worse.


So, what do Stouffer’s competitors do?
Bird’s Eye, best known for frozen vegetables, aims for the family appeal like anyone else, with the theme of “So veggie good.”

As mentioned above, clever never works. The only thing Bird’s Eye owns is veggies. Marie Callendar’s, second to Stouffers in single-serve meals, attempts to gain preference by showcasing its founder. But it’s not the only one.

Developing this frozen food study, we found about every frozen food brand playing that tactic with diminishing results. (Read a market study on Breakfast Cereals) “It’s time to savor” is simply another way of saying its food tastes good.

That’s not a switching trigger. You wouldn’t prefer a frozen food brand if it didn’t taste good. It certainly doesn’t present a true choice to Stouffers, with its “Made for you to love.” The rest of the market should be more aggressive. Stouffers is an odd duck for a market leader.

It changes themes so often that its leadership position is ripe for the picking. Its website touts Stouffers as a “great flavor you can trust.” And recent incarnations of its messaging say “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”(Read about brand repositioning)


Diet brands are taking over
If anything, the “lite” frozen food brands actually own a position.

From Lean Cuisine to Healthy Choice to Smart Ones to Atkins, many of the more impressive brands come from that section of the frozen aisle. They have a distinct advantage in that they position themselves directly against the brands of Stouffers and Marie Callendar, who pile up with sodium. Diet brands like Lean Cuisine are also smarter in that their names contain meaning.

Lean, healthy, and smart are in all their names. Lean Cuisine’s interesting choice of introducing busy lifestyles so consumers can “feed their phenomenal” is at least trying to be emotional. Even though it doesn’t really succeed. Healthy Choice, which attacks the lunch market with an emphasis on bowls, is better. It’s the only diet frozen food brand positioning itself directly against the other diet frozen food brands.

“Don’t diet, live healthily,” says the other meals are diet meals, with its suggestion that diet means without flavor.


Frozen food Study summary
The major takeaway from this frozen food study? Frozen brands lack a true emotional hook that creates preference.

Instead of creating preference, frozen food brands are becoming something akin to how microbrew drinkers choose. Our studies demonstrate that microbrew drinkers are most interested in what’s new rather than having fealty to a certain brand. They are loyal to the category of microbrews, but not to a specific brand.

Photography Studio Vermont Burlington product commercial advertising Food Beer microbrew 11 1Frozen dinner shoppers, even those defaulting to choosing DiGiorno for pizza, look first at what’s new. And, if there isn’t anything they especially like or that captures their attention, they revert to the current standby. But they’re on the hunt.


Steal from the Leaders
That’s why there is so much opportunity for frozen food brands to take market share from the leaders. Nestle, of course, owns many of them. So they develop into flanker brands of each other. But many are not.

Conagra Foods, with its lineup of Marie Callender’s, Bertolli, Healthy Choice, and PF Chang’s, could overtake Nestle if it was willing to give shoppers a way to choose beyond food type. And there are many, it not hundreds, of other stand-alone brands.

Conagra’s model (and that of Nestle and others) is also an expensive one. A house of brands means you must spend more money supporting each brand than a branded house. Proctor & Gamble is a house of brands, but the more effective model is a branded house like Apple or Nike.

It would take a great effort for these billion-dollar companies to change, but a single mission – and brand theme – that gives meaning to all your products gives consumers a reason to prefer.


Frozen food brands are either lazy or terrified
Even if companies don’t take the branded house route, they can do so much better at their messaging. Because Stouffers and DiGiorno aren’t going away soon. And, if brands keep doing what they’ve always done, they will remain market leaders.

Stouffers, in fact, is taking on the diet market.
Fit Kitchen is an effective name. But it contains another overly clever message. “This is fit” is obviously marketing bullshit, so it’s easily ignored. But will anyone take advantage of Stouffers’ misstep? This frozen food study comes down to this: The category is stagnant, with new competitors arriving all the time. In fact, they only fight over aisle space.

Who gets in the Walmart fridge? How many shelves do they get? Well, Walmart is like any other business. Preferred brands are stocked.

Why are the brands so terrified of creating true preference?