MARKET FOCUS: Food & beverage - What's cooking in food PRThe scale of food launches might be waning. But with health a keybattleground, PR is playing an ever more prominent role. John Frankreports

Mintel International, a British market research publisher, reports

that new food and beverage products introduced in the US have fallen 25%

in the past four years, from 12,483 in 1997 to 9,417 last year. But this

isn't necessarily bad news for those in food PR: the trade is steadily

commanding larger chunks of the sector's marketing budgets.



Food companies, tired of investing millions in new products (most of

which fail), have turned to acquiring market share rather than fighting

for it with new product launches. Recent examples include Kraft taking

over Nabisco and General Mills merging with Pillsbury.



'There is more consolidation going on, and the more consolidation, the

less competition and need for new products,' says Michael Fineman,

principal of Fineman Associates PR in San Francisco.



The larger the company, the more difficult it is for a new product to

have a major impact on bottom line. The amount of money a company stands

to lose on a failed new product often outweighs the potential gains of a

modest success.



'Many of these large food companies are really risk averse,' says Stacey

Antine Raidy, an SVP at Ogilvy.



Successful new products often sell their benefits by tying into consumer

health concerns or the simple desire to have fun with food. Products

that convince consumers why they're different can be pitched as

innovative.



Products that are merely brand line extensions have to appeal to brand

loyalty or fun to capture shoppers' attention.



'There's an advantage to being out first with a new product, says Peter

Brace, VP and director of the food, beverage and nutrition practice at

Manning, Selvage & Lee. 'You don't want to trumpet a 'me too'

product.'



The power of PR



Food companies are increasingly looking to PR to tell a product's story.

Cathy Calhoun, president of BSMG's Chicago office, says that PR spending

accounts for 5% to 15% of overall marketing budgets for typical new

product rollouts today, compared to 1% to 5% a few years ago.



'Innovation is expensive,' says Robbie Vorhaus, president and CEO of

Vorhaus & Co. Bertolli Olive Oil, a Vorhaus client, spends 32% to 40% of

its total marketing budget on PR. Paul Barrett, communications manager

at Bertolli, wants to educate consumers about the benefits of olive oil

and the differences in varieties, and he thinks PR is a better tool than

advertising.



'Food is fun - it's emotional, but it's also complex,' says Jill

McDonough, EVP and deputy general manager of the consumer practice at

Edelman PR Worldwide. 'Rarely can those issues be addressed in a 30- or

60-second ad.'



Many contend that pitching consumer trends, such as healthy eating,

generates a better response from picky producers, editors and,

eventually, consumers.



'A lot of times you have to broaden the story,' says MSL's Brace.



PR is good at pushing product health benefits by commissioning

scientific studies on ingredients, and making results available in

places like consumer Web sites. 'Everyone sees food as a health panacea,

and that trend continues,' Brace says.



Last year Ogilvy rolled out a new Minute Maid orange juice containing

vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc during flu season with the message that

these could bolster the immune system. A symposium at an American

Dietetic Association meeting furthered the message by reaching

dietitians, says Raidy.



When rolling out Sara Lee's Calzone Creations, Doug Dome of Dome

Communications in Chicago directed the media to what he saw as an

emerging trend. He went to AP just before a major food industry trade

show in Chicago last spring with the idea that Americans were turning

their backs on low-fat and no-fat foods. The new calzones were a perfect

example. AP and Good Morning America ran the story, and the Calzones

became one of the most covered products at the show.



'But when you've got something revolutionary, then a straight product

approach is the way to go,' says Ellen Ryan Mardiks, worldwide director

of marketing and brand strategy with Golin/Harris in Chicago.



Magnet Communications did just that last year when it introduced Heinz

green ketchup in a squirt bottle, says Julia Brannan, VP of the agency's

consumer practice. 'When you have a product like green ketchup, there is

inherent news value to it,' she says.



The green-ketchup exception



Heinz came out with a new squirt bottle that's easy for kids to use

after interviewing more than 1,000 children. The company wanted to

publicize the new package, but 'the color of the ketchup was just such a

huge story,' Brannan says.



Heinz hadn't planned to unveil the new product until this winter, but

when it heard a trade publication was set to break the story last

summer, Brannan advised moving up the launch. 'Our counsel was to take

control of the story,' she says. Within 72 hours, she prepared a PR plan

that began with giving AP the first look.



As an AP story moved over the wires July 10, 2000, Brannan turned to

business TV shows and set up interviews with Heinz executives. B-roll of

kids using the ketchup went out to TV consumer news shows. Brannan had

only six product samples available at the time, which she sent to

network morning news shows on a Sunday night to get stories aired on

Monday morning.



The first 24 hours garnered massive exposure. Overall, the launch

reached 198 million people through TV and print coverage in more than

1,000 newspapers, including USA Today and The New York Times.



When the media won't bite



But not all foods have the media appeal of green ketchup. According to

Vorhaus, 'Most new products are a tough sell.' For example, he says,

calling the Today show to talk about a new food product often gets no

response.



The morning shows tend to see pitching food products as too

commercial.



'There is a bias against food PR,' says Vorhaus. 'No TV producer wants

to provide free time to sell someone's latest food offering.'



Some new food products get around the problem by partnering with other

recognized brands to reach particular consumer markets. When Publicis

was promoting Stouffer's new Oven Sensations last year, it teamed with

GE's new Advantium Speedcook Oven. Oven Sensations put cooking

directions for using the new GE oven on its packaging and held a contest

that gave away a year's supply of Oven Sensations and a new GE oven.



While there may be fewer new products coming to the market, more PR

resources are likely to be used to connect with skeptical consumers.

Says Fineman: 'You just can't put a product out there and say, 'Hey,

I've got something new.' You have to say why consumers should care.'



A SAMPLING OF SUCCESSFUL FOOD PRODUCT LAUNCHES



PRODUCT: Emeril's Original by B&G Foods



Introduced: September 2000



PR Firm: M Booth & Associates



CHALLENGE: Introduce and generate excitement for a line of seasonings,

salad dressings, sauces and marinades for celebrity chef Emeril

Lagasse



ACHIEVEMENT: More than 160 stories and 40 million consumer impressions

generated during the first three months



PRODUCT: Hemp Bar by Govinda Fitness Foods



INTRODUCED: Fall 2000



PR FIRM: Envision



CHALLENGE: Introduce a new product with a controversial main ingredient

on a small budget



ACHIEVEMENT: Attracted three-time Grammy winner Ziggy Marley to endorse

the product and promote it on his concert tour. Results include nearly

400 nationally syndicated newspaper stories, a Whole Life Times cover, a

TV feature and a syndicated Variety online article



PRODUCT: Eggo Waf-fulls by Kellogg's



INTRODUCED: Fall 2000



PR FIRM: Fleishman-Hillard



CHALLENGE: Capturing attention for a product extension of an established

brand with numerous existing extensions



ACHIEVEMENT: More than 100 story placements and 148 million consumer

impressions; 98% of coverage contained a key brand message or visual of

the product.



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