Banquet Frozen Dinners Get a Country Makeover

ConAgra’s Banquet frozen dinner brand is getting a serious makeover.

This comes after analysts singled out the brand for its poor performance during the company’s Q1 2009 earnings call this week (Sept. 19). ConAgra cited rising commodity costs and a lack of significant marketing on behalf of the brand as reasons for the decline. ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin said during the call that “Banquet is a brand that we have not advertised in decades.”

All that will change on Monday. Next week, the company reveals the new celebrity face of the brand: country music star Lee Ann Womack. The singer, whom ConAgra formerly tapped for its Banquet 400 Nascar race in 2003, will help market the food giant’s new line of value and health-oriented frozen meals: Banquet Select Recipes.

The move is part of ConAgra’s strategy to make the brand appealing to its core demographic: country music-loving moms. Banquet Select Recipes come in seven offerings, including Enchilada Combo Meal and Chicken Parmesan, and the meals, which retail for $1.50, are supposed to be equivalent to restaurant quality.

Banquet received a black eye last October when it was forced to recall its potpies. And, sales haven’t been good of late. Banquet potpies were down 25.3% to $55 million for the year ending Aug. 10, per IRI.

“If you think about the brand, it has held still for a very long time,” said Matt Arnold, a food analyst at Edward Jones, St. Louis. The new Banquet Select Recipes line and ad campaign “is the kind of thing the brand needs. It needs an element of newness,” said Arnold. “A lot of people still think of the old fried chicken dinners this brand has forever been associated with.”

ConAgra has spent very little on marketing to boost the image of the brand. For the first half of the year it spent only $200,000, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. For its other brands it spent $119 million. Last year, its media spend for Banquet was $6 million.

“If you look at the core essence of the brand, its on-shelf presence and overall marketing, it’s true that it hasn’t changed much for many years,” said Tom McGough, vp of ConAgra’s Banquet and Kid Cuisine brands. “Our revitalization will contemporize the brand, while continuing to touch the demographic that has been loyal to Banquet for decades.”

The Banquet brand dates back to 1953, when ConAgra introduced it as a line of frozen meat pies. Frozen dinners debuted two years later. Since then, the brand has evolved into a line of desserts, Crock-Pot Classics and dinnertime staples like Salisbury Steak and Crispy Fried Chicken.

Analysts are split as to whether Banquet Select Recipes will revitalize the brand. The low price point may make it harder for consumers to associate with restaurant-equivalent food, said Virginia Lee, a senior research analyst at Euromonitor. “At that price point, it’s a stretch unless the restaurant you’re comparing it to is Taco Bell.”

Leslie Moeller, a vp at Booz & Co., disagreed. “Positioning it against restaurants is good. Consumer behavior is changing dramatically. People are now trading down to quick service or eating at home.”