Hunger for Growth Prompts Marie Callender’s Lunch Push

Continuing to tap into the recession-driven need for convenient and portable lunches, ConAgra Foods is backing new shelf stable and frozen varieties of its Marie Callender’s brand with a fresh round of ad support.

One campaign promotes Pasta Al Dente, the healthy offshoot of comfort food brand Marie Callender’s that hit shelves earlier this year. ConAgra, which makes Hunt’s tomatoes and Egg Beaters, subsequently extended the line to include four new flavors, including Cavatelli Chicken Carbonara and Penne Chicken Piccata in June. Print and TV ads promoting the new extensions—which hit full distribution this month—are now running. DDB, San Francisco, handles.

The campaign includes a four-page, print advertorial in the October publications of Food Network Magazine, Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens showing Michael Chiarello, star of the Food Network show Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello, touting the products’ “authenticity” and closeness to home-cooked, Italian cuisine.

In a separate campaign, ConAgra this week dials up TV advertising for Home-Style Creations. TV spots center on the “little touch of home” (away from home) lunchtime theme. The six-item line, which retails for $3.49 each, are Marie Callender’s first nationally distributed, shelf stable meals.

Both Pasta Al Dente and Home-Style Creations boast “fresh,” microwaveable meals that are cooked using ConAgra’s proprietary microwaveable basket steaming method, a technology it first used on the Healthy Choice Café Steamers brand. Their targets, however, are different. Women 35 and older are the primary consumers of both products, though the Pasta Al Dente buyer tends to be more focused on “high quality” and nutritious meals, while Home-Style Creations appeals to those who crave flavor in home-cooked, comfort foods, said Rob McCutcheon, vp and general manager of the Marie Callender’s business.

Both pushes move Con-Agra closer to the time-starved, brown-bagging lunchtime crowd, a segment that’s gone up as consumers look to save money in a recession. For much of its 61-year history, Marie Callender’s—which is known for its chicken pot pies and home-style meat loafs—derived the core of its sales from the dinner occasion, with 80 percent of all products purchased being consumed during that meal time, McCutcheon said.

With Pasta Al Dente and Home-Style Creations, “we are opening up that lunchtime opportunity,” he said.