ConAgra’s Chow Talks Innovation, Insights

ConAgra Foods’ new product pipeline has been sizzling, despite the recession. The maker of Hunt’s tomato sauce and Chef Boyardee saw sales rise 6.1 percent to $3.1 billion for its most recent quarter. New product introductions like Healthy Choice Café Steamers, the No. 1 food launch in 2008—according to market research firm IRI—contributed to that growth. That product brought in $95 million in first-year sales alone (excluding Wal-Mart). While private label and consumer cutback did eat into its bottom line (net income fell 37.5 percent to $193.2 million), CMO Joan Chow still thinks there’s plenty of demand for more new products in tough times. Not to mention some revamping of old favorites. Such was the case with the company’s recent relaunch of Healthy Choice. Its new campaign stars The New Adventures of Old Christine’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The effort, via agencies Nitro, New York, digital agency Bridge Worldwide and design firm Brandimage Desgrippes & Laga, also coincides with new packaging—most notably on the just-introduced All Natural Entrees line. Such initiatives, and others in the works, keep the ConAgra family of brands alive and fresh, Chow said. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation:

Brandweek: Analysts have applauded ConAgra’s new products; what’s your strategy?
Joan Chow: It’s definitely “fewer, bigger and better.” We call it sticky innovation, meaning that when you launch it, it sticks around. It’s not just a flash in a pan and then it’s gone. Steaming is one of our major platforms. You see it with the Healthy Choice Asian Inspired Café Steamers; the technology has been expanded to Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers and now with Marie Callender’s Pasta Al Dente, which uses that same platform.
BW: You increased your marketing spend in the last quarter. Will this continue?
JC: We’ll be up a bit on advertising and promotional spending versus last year on a total year basis. The important thing isn’t the sheer dollar amount, but how we go about spending it. We try to make sure we are as efficient with our dollars as possible. We are striving for return on investment on our marketing objectives.
BW: How are the new Alexia Natural Crunchy Snacks performing?
JC: It’s only in a few retailers. The marketing is limited to shopper marketing. [Currently], we have it at Target. It is truly delicious. Once it’s in broader distribution, we will have a more robust campaign with TV, print, online and sampling. The premise behind it is, “The ordinary made extraordinary.” You won’t necessarily see those words [on the packaging or in ads] but it is made with incredible Russet potatoes and the onion strips contain actual strips of onion. It’s not the fake stuff. It’s the real thing with seasonings and spices inspired by a chef. 
BW: What’s the strategy behind the new Healthy Choice campaign?
JC: Healthy Choice really started the whole healthy foods [frozen category] 20 years ago when it was introduced. [But], we didn’t keep up with contemporary flavors for the brand. We decided to reinvent the whole brand, everything from the food—in terms of the flavors [including the launch of new, All Natural Entrees this month] and made sure the taste was incredible. We changed the packaging along with the brand to make sure it’s fresher and more contemporary and we introduced an exclamation point [on the packaging] to show the surprise element around Healthy Choice. It represents great nutrition, great taste and great looks, and a surprising way to advertise this is, we have a wonderful spokesperson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is in these situations in a storyline that, as it develops over time, shows her debating whether or not to be the brand’s spokesperson.