The frozen food market is worth £3bn and 99% of people shop the category, but the sector is largely leaving consumers uninspired. In the year ending April 2006, the total frozen food category declined by 7.5%, according to IRI data.
Unilever is spearheading frozen's comeback through its £21m Birds Eye 'Truth' advertising campaign, designed to challenge consumer perceptions of frozen food. The adverts, which have appeared across all media since April, reveal "surprising" facts about how food is produced and point out that chilled and fresh food begins to deteriorate from the moment it's produced to the point you eat it, whereas freezing locks in freshness.
But this campaign isn't Birds Eye's first stab at changing consumer perceptions. Its Store Cupboard initiative, which saw Unilever "clean up" all of its frozen products to make sure all ingredients were everyday things found in the kitchen cupboard; the subsequent Birds Eye We Don't Play With Your Food campaign; and its Captain Birds Eye Nutrition Mission campaign to reassure mums on the quality of Captain Birds Eye products, were all designed to change consumer perceptions.
Unilever Ice Cream & Frozen Food category director John Farrell says: "It's a big challenge because consumers have wrongly labelled frozen food as poor quality, but our job is to set the record straight. The Truth campaign has already been well received through both the trade and consumers, and while our brand links strongly to the campaign, it's a huge investment for the frozen category as a whole. It shows consumers that freezing is a way of locking in freshness, but we're asking people to find out for themselves - we're just giving them the facts. We're also trying to surprise them and challenge their existing mindset and perceptions."
Farrell admits that it's not just the rise of chilled that has brought about frozen's demise. "There's been an increased amount of discounting, which can sometimes devalue a market. There's also been some negative press in the past 18 months about frozen food being very processed. For more health conscious consumers, frozen food hasn't filled that mindset, which is partly because of some of the products on offer, and partly because the category hasn't communicated the right message."
A number of the symbol groups are addressing the decline in frozen with new signage and promotional initiatives, but Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL) has gone one step further by working with smaller suppliers to come up with a new range of premium ready meals.
Miki Handzar, trading manager for frozen food at MBL, says: "As a business we are determined to reverse the downward trend in the frozen category by bringing a quality, convenient and healthy range to our customers.
"Frozen ready meals suffered the greatest decline last year, which clearly identified that we needed innovation to protect and develop the category. We are very pleased with the work done with our partners Eazy Cuizine, Wensleydale Foods and Babylicious, who have clearly demonstrated a true entrepreneurial flair and desire to work together with us on this."
Unilever's John Farrell says the decline in frozen ready meals has also been true of chilled. "I think this is part of a movement towards health," says Farrell. "The perception of ready meals is that they're great for convenience but they might not deliver other things, such as nutrition.
"Sudan 1 last year also had a big impact and many people left the category and haven't returned. Ready meals are a critical category for us to get right so we've been doing a lot of work to understand consumers' attitudes towards ready meals and see how we can take them forward."
Adds Farrell: "Driving value back is critical for us. We want to get people to spend more money on frozen foods and encourage those who had switched to chilled to return to frozen. Through NPD such as Pub Specials and Mini Fish Fingers, new salmon and hake Simply Fish products, and new veg and rice Steam Fresh products, we're adding value."
The 51 stores listing MBL's new ready meals range have a dedicated 'Quality Family Meals' merchandising solution that features six adult meals (Eazy Cuizine chef prepared meals), five children's meals (Beth Guy's Little Pies, produced with regionally sourced products by Wensleydale Foods) and four quality baby meals for busy parents from Babylicious.
Handzar adds that lack of innovation and over-promotion has caused the decline in frozen to spiral. "The climate of sales and profit decline can hardly act as an incentive for innovation, hence we have seen very little. Instead, a self-perpetrated damage continued to grow through massive promotional drives, which only further reinforced consumers' perception of frozen as inferior.
"This year has started in a very encouraging fashion, though, with a number of excellent innovations from many suppliers, among which Unilever's Birds Eye Pub Specials is certainly worth mentioning. It's this sort of initiative that is required from the whole industry if we are to see a frozen foods revival."
Farrell says that working with retailers in improving the retail environment is also just as important as the right communication and quality product. "Consumers find the frozen aisles cold and unappealing and they want to spend as little time there as possible. In c-stores, visibility and category signage is critical and we're working to improve frozen's signage in c-stores."
Over the past year Unilever has rolled out category signage kits to 4,000 independent and symbol stores, as well as communicating its '10 to target' message, which encourages retailers to stock the 10 products that make up 13% of all frozen food sales. The Unilever Partners for Growth initiative also advises c-stores on recommended range and layout.
Unilever has also been working with Londis on an ideal range and is taking the results of that partnership and applying them across the board. "We need to be a manufacturer that helps the in-store environment across the independent trade," says Farrell. "A surprising fact that is driving us is that 28% of shoppers don't know c-stores sell frozen food."
Retailers are clearly encouraged by Birds Eye's dedication to turning the frozen category around. "Birds Eye's new campaign is excellent stuff and long needed," says MBL's Handzar. "It will be critical to continue this momentum on a long-term basis to change attitudes."
Unilever evidently has every intention of doing this. "In the long term, we need to drive frozen back into growth - that's the big challenge," says category director John Farrell. "We're not going to do that in the next year or 18 months, but we hope to in the next three or four years. The market is worth £3bn and 99% of people shop the category, so we don't have a barrier to frozen. We have core consumers who are enthusiastic about it, we just need to maximise it."