How Sara Lee’s Ball Park Brand Became the Top Dog

For years, Ball Park was the No. 2 player in hot dogs. That is, until parent company Sara Lee—maker of Hillshire Farm meats and Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches—turned to insights, backed by innovation, to take share from and ultimately usurp the lead spot from Kraft competitor Oscar Mayer. (Per IRI, Ball Park is now the beef hot dog sales leader, based on data for the 52 weeks ending March 7.) The brand’s ascension was informed by research which showed that moms were the primary buyers of the product, but that teenage boys, too, enjoyed eating it. Such a consumer-centric approach has helped Sara Lee drive growth, said CMO Philippe Schaillee. Schaillee spoke to Brandweek about why Big Food is likely to roll out major new innovations later this year and how social media helped Sara Lee’s deli business gain prominence with moms. Excerpts from the interview appear below.

Brandweek: At a recent industry conference, you spoke about how Sara Lee is using insights to drive innovation. Give us an example of how that worked for a major brand.
Philippe Schaillee:
I will talk to you about the Ball Park brand. For many years, we communicated Ball Park through traditional TV and print, primarily to a male audience. We had this character called Frank, and we’d talk about the grilling occasion and that great experience you’d get from [cooking with] Ball Park hot dogs. Looking back, I’d say that was [both] intuition- and research-based, but it wasn’t really insights- based. As we dove much deeper into an understanding of the consumer and shopper, we learned a few things. One was that the brand was overindexing with males. They are looking for the heartiness and real quality of a Ball Park hot dog. But [the brand] was also overindexing more with teenage boys than with adult males. Once we learned that, we started to look into the shopper of this [brand] and learned that she was really looking for a hearty solution for her teenage son and husband. She [wanted something that wasn’t] just a lower quality snack or that would get them into this mindless eating behavior, but something that was solid, yet still fast and convenient. That [discovery] was a breakthrough.

BW: And then what?
We decided we had an opportunity to build this platform around “guy foods.” However, the person we had to reach out to and that we had to convince from a purchasing behavior perspective was mom. So, from an activation perspective, we shifted our spending radically from what, before, was 80 percent against a male target, to 70 percent [to reach] this female shopper, and the other 30 percent was spent against [targeting] teenage boys. Our communication to teenage boys, [meanwhile,] was a radical departure from the past. Teenage boys watch TV, but they are absolutely not loyal. That is not where we should be spending our money, [nor do they] really read any magazines or newspapers. Where we have to be to reach that target is in the individual gaming and online action sports [arena]…We teamed up with a couple of sports spokespersons to build credibility and really ensure that the Ball Park brand would be [engaged in and participating in] the action sport, versus just advertising at [the event]. As for business results, after having eternally been the No. 2 brand in the hot dog category, we overtook Oscar Mayer about two years ago, and we’ve been growing our share advantage every year. When looking at equity parameters like awareness and household penetration, our loyalty metrics are inching up, and we’ve seen that with teenage boys, especially. We’ve moved from being not on their radar screen to more on their radar screen.