Heinz Spud Launch No Dud

Heinz has achieved something many might have thought impossible: It has created excitement around mashed potatoes.

At least  the company’s CEO, William Johnson, is excited. After Heinz announced its second-quarter earnings last month, Johnson singled out a new entry—Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash—as “one of the most successful launches in many years.” The product, which began national distribution in September, has so far brought in $7.8 million in sales, per IRI data ending the week of Nov. 2, which does not include Wal-Mart and c-store sales. This comes at a time when the frozen side dish category is up 10.04 percent, with brands like Bird’s Eye and Heinz’s Ore-Ida posting a 206 percent and 81 percent increase, respectively. (Other brands, like Green Giant, however, are down by 10.84 percent.)

Brand manager Kimberly Lang said she thinks the product will help the Ore-Ida brand grow. “Ore-Ida realized a couple years ago that whether fresh or frozen, mashed potatoes represented a big opportunity for Heinz,” she said. If the product’s momentum continues and lives up to Johnson and Lang’s expectations, the success can be traced to a single insight: That consumers who prepare mashed potatoes generally enjoy just one part of the experience—the mashing that comes at the end.

That discovery came thanks to a two-day experiment at Heinz’s innovation lab center in Pittsburgh in May 2007. Heinz asked 35 women to bring in everything they needed to make homemade mashed potatoes from scratch and then watched them prepare the dish. What the Ore-Ida researchers learned was that it took about 45 minutes at least to make the potatoes and many parts of it were tedious. Consumers responded positively to the idea of eliminating the boiling and peeling, but leaving the mashing and seasoning.

Marketing for the product, which retails for $3.69, harped on that theme. TV ads via Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago, used a before-and-after approach. The old way, which was portrayed by an exasperated woman peeling a mound of potatoes, was contrasted with the new way: microwave, steam and mash. A print ad showed a peeler off in a corner with the headline, “Give your potato peeler a time-out.” Tagline: “We peel and chop, you steam and mash.”

Heinz also tapped word-of-mouth marketing agency SheSpeaks, which sent out packages with coupons plus pass-along coupons to friends and family in August and included a free potato masher, to remind them to redeem it. Spending on the campaign was not disclosed. According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, Heinz has spent $4.3 million on measured U.S. ads promoting the product so far.

Aside from the marketing, Paul Leinwand, a vp at Booz & Co., Chicago, said the product has tapped into the pain aspect of cooking. “The opportunity for companies like Heinz is to re-establish the tradition of cooking as a positive experience. By doing so, the category itself is redefined based on an emotional connection which builds a much longer-lasting equity relationship with the customer,” he said.

Satisfied with its success so far, Lang said she is planning to expand beyond the current four flavors. Cramer-Krasselt, meanwhile, is thinking of a second-generation  campaign based on a ’60s dance craze, said creative director Christina Calvit: “At the moment, we’re intrigued with someday getting people to do the Mashed Potato.”