MARKET FOCUS FOOD & BEVERAGE: Food forethought - A tough economyand tighter news cycle has food companies thinking up new PRangles - from comfort to colors to concerts - to gain media and publicinterest

Americans are increasingly interested in hearing about food, even though they may not be cooking more, Leong says. Editors were asked, "Has American interest in food increased or decreased significantly in the last year or two?

Americans are increasingly interested in hearing about food, even though they may not be cooking more, Leong says. Editors were asked, "Has American interest in food increased or decreased significantly in the last year or two?

Leong found that 47% said it's increased significantly, while 40% say it's increased slightly.

But asked if interest in cooking has gone up, only 37% of editors say it has gone up slightly, while 20% say it remains the same.

Americans do want to know more about the ingredients used in their foods.

Asked if the origins of food matter to readers, 75% of editors agreed strongly that they do. Also, 80% say Americans more strongly embrace locally grown foods.

"People's interest in the food world is growing, and it's growing beyond recipes to the story of food,

says Leong.

Food and beverage PR temporarily ground to a halt after September 11, as food makers and their PR firms tried to determine what would be appropriate in such a dark time.

By October, however, some food PR programs were moving forward again.

Chicago-based Dome Communications, for example, launched a new campaign for Parkay Fun Squeeze October 17 that was originally supposed to start in September.

Other efforts quickly adapted to the new realities. Gatorade had been planning a new line of flavors aimed at the Hispanic market. The line was to be named Explosivo (explosive), but that was changed to Xtremo after Gatorade, working with Burson-Marsteller, realized Explosivo was simply too volatile a name for the times. The new line extension was unveiled in March at a Los Angeles launch event featuring boxer Jose Navarro.

Now, more than half a year removed from September 11, food and beverage producers have returned to their normal pre-summer PR and promotional plans. Many are concentrating on new product introductions to ramp up sales volume.

New product introductions had slowed last year because of the recession, notes Robbie Vorhaus, president/CEO with Vorhaus & Company in New York.

New products are expensive and with the economy in the doldrums, many food and beverage makers opted to focus last year's scaled-back PR spending on core brands, he notes. But with the economy picking up, that's changing.

"We're seeing an increase in RFPs,

says Vorhaus. "Budgets are slowly starting to ease, though programs must be tight enough to bounce a dime off of. Our food clients are once again spending in terms of innovation."

Food and beverage PR this summer will look to such tried and true methods as getting the attention of newspaper and magazine food editors to publicize new products. But trade titles weren't immune to last year's economic downturn. Many trimmed staffs, which means getting time with harried editors is tougher today, says Steve Bryant, chief creative officer at Publicis Dialog. "It's hard to get a background meeting,

he says. "You need to go with a solid news angle."

New recipe for making news

Food and beverage PR this year is trying grassroots techniques to bypass the media and connect directly with consumers. Grassroots usually means events, concerts, and other chances to give product samples to consumers.

"Food PR is evolving into so much more than straight media relations," says Liz Barrett, senior consultant in the food, beverage, and consumer products and services practice at Dome. "You have to find creative ways to get consumers' attention, which ultimately does get the media's attention.

If you're getting to consumers in a unique way, that may perk up some ears in the media world."

The amount of space newspapers and food-oriented magazines devote to food and beverages hasn't been changed a great deal by September 11. Newspapers still have their weekly food pages, and food and beverage magazines still cover the industry.

TV coverage, however, has changed. With more hard news from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere, morning shows that once had time for lighter reports on food and beverage trends, or new products, are a tougher sell today. "There's very little room for food segments on the major networks,

says Beth Shepard, director of culinary partnership with Hatfield, MA-based Lisa Ekus Public Relations.

Renee Yosco, senior managing director, consumer marketing with Hill & Knowlton, agrees. "The lighter type segments have taken a back seat to news. It's more challenging these days."

Challenging, but not impossible, say Vorhaus and others. Food and beverages still get time, and print space, if they can tie into an overarching trend.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the dominant trend was comfort foods. "Comfort and indulgence foods were clearly resonating with consumers in the fourth quarter,

says Wendy Johnson, senior principal, group management director with Publicis Dialog in Seattle.

Indeed, Dome was having problems getting coverage for Fleischmann's Premium Blend margarine launched in early October. Then, The New York Times wrote about comforts foods and Dome began pitching the Fleischmann's product as fitting into the trend. "It worked for us," says Emily Johnson, senior account supervisor at Dome.

Food and beverage PR continues to focus on the comfort food theme, but convenience is being added as a secondary message, says Kelly O'Malley, SVP and co-chair of food and agriculture practice at Fleishman-Hillard.

Fleishman will be pushing both themes this summer as it handles PR for the opening of the Spam Museum in Minnesota.

The museum originally was supposed to open September 14, 2001, but that was pushed back to this summer. Spam plans to bring famous TV-show moms to the opening to get media attention. It also will have Tom Brokaw there to dedicate a display devoted to World War II mothers.

Other products are also going the museum route to grab consumer attention.

Kraft's Jell-O started a traveling version of its museum in February, says Nora Bertucci, SVP with Hunter Public Relations. The traveling Jell-O museum started in Salt Lake City because Utah is the number-one state for per capita Jell-O consumption. It also will make appearances in two other heavy Jell-O consuming states, Delaware and Iowa, this year. The museum already has gotten coverage in USA Today and Newsweek, as well as on NBC's Today. Bertucci puts impressions garnered to date at 391 million.

Dole, the leading maker of packaged salad products, will be opening its museum of salad at New York's South Street Seaport May 1, the start of National Salad Month, says Patti Londre, president of the Londre Company in LA. Londre has been talking to arts, entertainment, and travel publications.

The museum will move to California after a month in the Big Apple. It has chosen to start in New York in order to keep with the city's efforts to get tourists and businesses back to lower Manhattan.

Dole's salad mascot, Sammy Salad, is being shipped cross-country for the opening and will be popping up in NBC's Today show plaza every day in May, hoping to grab time on the popular morning show, Londre says.

Fitting into a lifestyle

Museums and their nostalgic bent play into the comfort trend, but other food and beverage PR is aiming for different messages.

Heinz and its colored ketchups have started a color wave that's likely to spread to other food products this summer, says Dome's Barrett. Parkay's Fun Squeeze, a Dome client, comes in "electric blue

and "shocking pink.

Heinz already has begun PR efforts for its new Ore-Ida Funky Fries. The message of colored foods is fun for kids.

Meanwhile, beverages will continue to sell image and lifestyle in their PR efforts. Sarah Zeiler, director of media relations with Sidney Frank Importing, a liquor distributor, notes that she uses events with publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue to spotlight media attention on her Grey Goose vodka. She's introducing a new version of Grey Goose called LeCitron at the end of May with a launch party featuring celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at his Spago's restaurant. "We're constantly doing publicity driven events,

to associate Grey Goose with an upscale lifestyle, she explains.

For Jagermeister, a German liquor aimed at a distinctly more rowdy crowd, however, Zeiler has a summer heavy-metal concert tour planned.

Miller Brewing also has a concert series underway dubbed Rellim, or Miller spelled backwards. Concert-goers are given the impression that they are backstage when they enter the small venues that Miller is presently selecting for the 19-city tour of small bands.

Lifestyle also plays a major role in wine PR, says Barbara Barrielle, director of PR with Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg, CA. Barrielle targets sailing events and gives away wine in gift baskets for the Emmys and other Hollywood happenings. As a result, "we have our name pop up in publications that are not typical wine publications,

she says.

Connecting with consumer lifestyles is also an approach being used by Publicis client Nestle, which started a website in January, called Verybestkids.com, to display family activities and craft projects. Vorhaus client Lipton has sent a researcher along with a noted mountain climber scaling Mount Everest to look at the role of tea in daily health.

This approach is even prevalent in the organic food industry. Mary Garrett, director of PR for Gauger & Santy, a Phoenix firm that works with organic food clients, says, "What I have found effective is telling consumers how this fits into their lifestyles."

CONSUMER INTEREST IN FOOD CONTINUES TO HEAT UP

Getting food editors' attention requires delving into the history and culture of food products being pitched, says Grace Leong, president of Hunter Public Relations in New York.

Hunter recently surveyed 1,300 food editors to see what they consider key trends.

Despite all the talk about "nesting

last year, September 11 didn't produce a surge in consumer demand for more cook-at-home recipes, food editors say. Consumers continue to seek out more intense flavors and more of what was once considered gourmet cuisine, the survey finds.

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