The Mayo Clinic

One afternoon in July, executives at Unilever’s corporate headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., had decided it was the right time to serve up, of all things, Thanksgiving dinner. Inside the test kitchen next to a conference room, about half a dozen women in aprons and tie-back hats hurried about a long table, laying out the victuals they’d cooked especially for the occasion. The feel was festive, right down to the pine cone-and-pumpkin centerpieces on the tabletop-but the purpose was pure business. Everything on the menu was made, to a greater or lesser degree, with mayonnaise. Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

That wasn’t just true for the obvious dishes like the mashed potatoes. A nearby tray of savory muffins, for instance, owed its smooth consistency and delicate texture to a cup of Hellmann’s. Even the turkey was made “super moist” with a generous rubbing of mayonnaise under and over the bird’s skin.

Mayonnaise…in muffins? Okay, so it’s not exactly the sort of thing they teach in culinary school, but if your goal is expanding market share, it’s not a bad recipe. According to Jamey Fish, Unilever senior brand manager, the dinner was a real-world experiment in expanding mayo’s uses — that is, of course, assuming consumers go for the ideas.

Hellmann’s (which sells under the name “Best Foods Mayonnaise” west of the Rockies) is the king of the mayonnaises. The $1.3 billion category, though considered mature, has been enjoying the vim of youth lately. Thanks to the recessionary rise of eating at home and brown-bagging lunches for the office, mayo is no longer the staid standby in the back of the kitchen cupboard. And so sales growth — any sales growth — is welcome news for the folks who work in Hellmann’s nondescript office park in Englewood Cliffs. But Fish’s efforts raise some hard questions, among them: As the recession lifts, will mayo’s popularity fade once more? Will vigorous marketing be enough to overcome the market’s vicissitudes? And, in these health-conscious times, is it even possible to overcome the fact that mayonnaise is among the fattiest foods on the market?

Fish seems unfazed by these challenges, and in fact welcomes the chance to steer a product he likens — not without affection — to a battleship. “This is a mature, large brand that’s been around for a while,” he says. “Growing it really takes a lot, [but] I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Already in Your Pantry
Fish brings a background that’s probably a boon for a century-old brand. He’s been at Unilever eight years, part of which he spent on the Lawry’s seasonings division (now divested), and it surely can’t hurt that he was once a fireworks designer. (“If you don’t get it right,” he says, “the audience doesn’t forget.”)

But dazzling Americans with pyrotechnics is a bit easier than thrilling them with mayonnaise. Nonetheless, Fish is confident he can get fat-conscious, weight-obsessed Americans to eat more of the stuff. He plans to do that through a combination of creating more uses for the condiment and through the nostalgia sell — appealing to consumers who long to recreate the good-old days of meat and potatoes and other so-called “real food.”

On that latter point, he may well find traction, given the list of unpronounceable ingredients that pack most food products nowadays. “Remember,” Fish says, “Hellmann’s has always been made with eggs, oil and vinegar.” It’s the sort of message that purists would appreciate — and there seem to be a growing number of those. They’re the sort who devour books by culinary journalist Michael Pollan, and who thrust Julia Child’s half-century-old Mastering the Art of French Cooking back into best seller status in the wake of the film Julie & Julia.

Fish’s approach is on full display in this month’s “Hellmann’s real holiday helpings” campaign, which stars chef Bobby Flay. The Food Network personality is appearing in print and online ads touting Hellmann’s as an essential component in family-oriented, Thanksgiving meals. Ads from OgilvyEntertainment show Flay cooking alongside mothers and their kids. (It is Hellmann’s contention that involving children in the cooking process renders them more willing to eat the results. Plus, introducing them to mayo can’t hurt, either.)
Transforming mayonnaise from something you just slather onto a BLT into a bona-fide culinary ingredient is a cornerstone of Fish’s thinking, and can be seen in a recipe ad running in Time Inc.’s Real Simple magazine. It features a fancy little number called an “Oven-Roasted Apple-Cranberry Crisp with Creamy Spiced Chantilly.” For as exotic and French-sounding as the dish may be, home cooks can whip it up in 15 minutes with lots of ingredients they probably have on-hand already, including the one three down the list: “1/4 cup Hellmann’s or Best Foods Real Mayonnaise.”

According to Fish, rejuvenating Hellmann’s sales isn’t so much a matter of telling consumers what it is, but reminding them that it’s there — and very likely in their own kitchens. “Hellmann’s is a family product that’s always been in the pantry, which is a good thing,” he says. Of course, he’ll need to give Americans more reasons to reach for it, hence the recipes that use mayo as a principal ingredient.

According to Marcia Mogelonsky, global food and beverage analyst at market research firm Mintel, that strategy is smart. “It used to be that [mayonnaise and similar condiments] were used for kids and at picnics and in the summer. It wasn’t a normal ingredient in everyday use. But now, people are packing lunches two, three times a week.” Hellmann’s, Mogelonsky adds, has increased its top-of-mind awareness as a result.

What’s on Your Plate
Indeed, one way Hellmann’s is making inroads to consumers’ palates is to find out what foods Americans are eating, what fruits and vegetables are readily available in different parts of the country, and also what economic and social factors are shaping the nation’s dining table. As a brand, Hellmann’s is fortunate to be part of the Unilever family in this respect. Normajean Longfield, a Unilever consumer culinary specialist, spends her days working on, among other things, the different flavor chemistries that arise when Wish-Bone salad dressing is used to, say, marinate a slice of meat for grilling. Longfield’s chemical/culinary intelligence can be readily adapted to find new uses for Hellmann’s, too.

Hellmann’s approach is grounded in both science and real-time consumer insights. Included in these is the fact that home cooks appreciate alternative suggestions if they don’t have ingredients on hand. According to Fish, this person appreciates that, for instance, if a recipe calls for saffron, he/she may be open to the idea that the recipe can go without it. In much the same way, mayo can stand in for binding agents like milk and eggs.

“Recipes that require you to go to the grocery store and buy 10 new things that you didn’t happen to have is asking a lot of people,” Fish says. “This isn’t the time to be asking people to go the extra mile.” If mom is cooking and happens to have a jar of Hellmann’s around, she won’t have to go that extra mile at all.

At the same time, much of Fish’s strategy also hinges on getting home cooks to consider Hellmann’s mayo as their “secret sauce — that special something that I’ve done that you don’t know about that makes this dish taste so good,” he said. “We know from research that consumers love recipes with a secret ingredient in them,” Longfield adds. And mayonnaise, in this instance, does the trick.

Chef Meets Cardiologist
Sure enough, mayo’s been doing the trick since it was invented in 1756 by the chef of France’s Duke de Richelieu, per Hellmann’s. Since first encountering it for sale at Richard Hellmann’s New York delicatessen in 1905, Americans have found mayonnaise to be tremendously tasty and adaptable. But it’s also tremendously fattening. Made from the essentials of oil, salt, and egg yolks, mayo sounds all the right notes on the heart-attack hit parade. It’s a potential kink to any plans to expand mayo’s use in recipes.

A few numbers here: One tablespoon’s serving size of Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise has 90 calories — all of which are from fat. Thirty of the 35 calories in the brand’s “Light” variety derive from fat. And Hellmann’s Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise has 45 calories, 40 of which are fat.

Hellmann’s way around all this? A marketing campaign that focuses on the “real simple ingredients” premise behind its mayonnaise. After all, lots of treasured American foods (eggs, for example) are known to be artery-cloggers, but the perceived purity of them tends to absolve some of the sin. Plus, though consumers might be afraid of mayo’s saturated fat, at least it’s not trans fat.

Hence, Hellmann’s emphasis on the word “real.” Squirt bottles and jars of Hellmann’s bear the “real” labeling, which the Food and Drug Administration defines as mayonnaise that derives at least 65 percent of its weight from oil, and which uses eggs as an emulsifier. Most shoppers, however, don’t go by the FDA’s definition of “real.” For them, real means honest ingredients that they recognize (and can pronounce.) For that reason, Unilever has carefully developed the “eggs, oil and vinegar” ingredient story behind Hellmann’s. “The insight is that consumers are much more aware of where their food comes from,” explains Unilever marketing director Dana Emery. “They’re looking for less processed ingredients — and that’s what we offer.” Adds Fish: “For them, food is about keeping it simple and keeping it real.”

Unilever has, in fact, been a staunch proponent of the “real food” movement. The basic line of reasoning is that consumers are more likely to buy goods from companies who can readily tell their ingredients’ stories. And Unilever’s not alone. In introducing Select Harvest, for instance, The Campbell Soup Co. touted it as a soup line “made from only ingredients that people can readily recognize.” Haagen-Dazs also has a line called Five named after the ice cream’s total list of ingredients.

But author and New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (pronounced “Ness-Uhl”) isn’t buying it. “Mayonnaise is a fatty spread — terrific if you love the taste of it, but best used in very small amounts,” she says. What about mayonnaise being an important part of a balanced diet? It has eggs, after all, right? Sorry, Charlie. “It may be important to the manufacturer,” Nestle counters, “but it’s hardly an essential nutrient.”

Fortunately for Hellmann’s, the reality probably lies somewhere between the marketing and the ingredient label. Americans might not like the idea of fat, but they’re still willing to accept it. As the resurgence of Julia Child’s landmark French cookbook proved, Americans’ fear of fat seems secondary to their appreciation of honest and wholesome foods — many of which have lots of fat.

The film Julie & Julia told the real-life story of a lowly administrative assistant who finds blogging fame by attempting to cook her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It also reminded Americans that the beloved Child — who lived to be 91 years old — loved to pile on the butter and cream.

The Recession-Friendly Spread
For this and probably many other reasons, people are eating more mayonnaise. Its dollar sales grew 11.8 percent for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 6, per IRI (the figure does not include sales at Walmart). Hellmann’s, which has a 25 percent category share, was up 14.7 percent. (Private label was up the most — nearly 32 percent.) Most analysts attribute the growth to the resurgence of the sandwich — the lunchtime staple of penny pinched brown baggers. Sales of lunchmeats, another common sandwich component, have also increased. Unilever has acted on the opportunity and, through August of this year, increased its media spend by almost 160 percent to $26 million, up from the $17 million and $10 million it spent during the same period in 2007 and 2008, per Nielsen.

But how long would the good news last? With economists having just declared the recession officially over, it’s only a matter of time before brown-bagging it for lunch will lose its retro cool and families will again go out to eat for dinner. In fact, according to senior associate brand manager Jessica Teilborg, “the biggest competitor we deal with every day is out-of-home dining.”

But Mintel’s Mogelonsky says that while restaurant sales will eventually eat into some of mayo’s recession-buoyed profits, that’s not going to happen overnight. The economic recovery, she explains, is not likely to come so fast and make consumers so flush that they’ll abandon the at-home meal for a life of dining out. “[It’s not like] the roaring ’90s when we were rich and loved to eat out every day,” Mogelonsky says. Mayo, she adds, “will still have a place in the pantry.”

And maybe — if Hellmann’s has its way — a place on the Thanksgiving dinner table, too.