After years of decline the frozen food category is finally back in growth as manufacturers - led by Birds Eye - throw their weight behind a bid to revitalise the frozen food market.
Last year Birds Eye put its money where its mouth was and launched a £21m campaign to encourage shoppers to reappraise the benefits of frozen food. It's upped the ante again this year, investing £25m in marketing throughout 2007.
The heavyweight support is clearly working. According to IRI data for the year ending April 21, 2007, the frozen food category has returned to growth for the first time in several years with the market up 3% for the year to date.
Birds Eye marketing director Andy Beattie says: "It's encouraging that we are witnessing what can be termed as the green shoots of recovery for the frozen market. It's true to say that frozen food has taken a hit in recent years, but the evidence is pointing to a sustainable recovery. There's much work to do and, as category leader, it's up to Birds Eye to make sure that the momentum continues."
This resurgence can be attributed to a number of key factors, says Beattie. "There is increasing awareness and acceptance that frozen food is in many cases fresher than chilled. Moreover, more consumers understand that food can be preserved naturally by freezing, as opposed to ambient or chilled foods which often require artificial preservatives to extend their shelf life.
"Consumers increasingly see the link between frozen food and natural, quality ingredients. The recent growth of core categories such as frozen fish and vegetables, which together command more than 20% of the frozen food market, bears testament to this."
An Independent Omnibus survey in November 2006 also verifies the success of Birds Eye's 'Truth' campaign. The results show that consumer perceptions of the frozen category's ingredients, freshness and naturalness have risen considerably, while negative perceptions about additives and artificial preservatives have started to decline.
The use of all-natural ingredients is becoming more the norm as manufacturers continue to strip their products of artificial ingredients and hydrogenated fats. Birds Eye, for example, is committed to using natural ingredients in its food, abiding by the principle of using only ingredients that you would find in your kitchen cupboard, and Bernard Matthews has removed all hydrogenated fats from its core family favourites range, and all packs convey the 'no artificial colours, preservatives or flavours' message.
High-quality and premium offers are also helping to put some value back into the category. Findus, for example, has launched a range of restaurant-quality ready meals with celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli. The range includes three recipes with a £3.99 price point such as salmon fillet with coconut & lemongrass extracts in a coriander and aniseed infused oil; five products with a rrp of £2.99, including haddock mornay on a bed of spinach topped with a rich cheese mornay sauce, and lemon & honey roast chicken on a bed of creamy onion mash; and two desserts at £1.99 - apple & raisin crêpe crumble with white chocolate brandy sauce & toasted oats, and white & dark chocolate crêpe chocolat.
Hain Celestial, meanwhile, is trying to shake up the vegetarian frozen food sector with the relaunch of the Linda McCartney brand. New packaging, recipes and natural ingredients across the range are all part of the £1m relaunch to bring the brand back to growth.
Hain Celestial marketing manager James Gentle says: "The frozen food category has been struggling due to a lack of innovation and manufacturers focusing on value-engineering rather than the quality of products on offer. It has not kept pace with developments in the chilled sector such as the increase in premium offerings and the use of natural ingredients, and for this reason it has suffered.
"We intend to put real food values back into the sector so that consumers see that frozen can be just as tasty, if not better, than chilled."
Heinz has thrown its weight behind a mission to make frozen food fashionable again, and at the end of last year it launched a number of new products under the Weight Watchers from Heinz and Aunt Bessie's brands, supported by a £7m investment to drive growth across the frozen category. Thai red curry, creamy chicken tarragon and chilli con carne joined the range of Weight Watchers from Heinz ready meals, while the Aunt Bessie's brand added potato bake with cheese & onion and potato bake with cheese & leek (both rrp £1.79), and mashed potato with cheese, and mashed potato with spring onion (both rrp £1.59).
The Weight Watchers from Heinz brand is now worth £103m and is growing at 11%, according to IRI data for November 2006, and Aunt Bessie's is showing value growth of 6% year on year.
Sector by sector
Frozen vegetables: The frozen veg market, excluding potatoes, is now worth £359m, having grown by 3.7% over the past year, according to IRI data.
Frozen meat: The hottest April on record has seen Birds Eye frozen burger sales increase by 50%. Birds Eye marketing director Andy Beattie says: "Frozen burger sales have gone through the roof compared with this time last year, and it can clearly be attributed to the great weather we are having. If the weather this summer is as good as is predicted, we expect sales will continue to outperform previous expectations. The key message to customers is to stock up now to take advantage of the good weather and the impulse nature of the barbecuing occasion."
Frozen fish: Worth more than £600m, the frozen fish category grew in value by 3.5% in 2006, which reversed the decline of 2005. The biggest issue the category faces is the reliance on cod, which continues to see large price rises year on year due to increasing supply constraints. Birds Eye has introduced Alaskan Pollock, which is a natural source of Omega 3 and more popular than cod overall in Europe. Wild salmon from the Pacific is used in Birds Eye Simply Salmon in a move to extend its repertoire of species.
Frozen poultry: Frozen poultry is worth £254m and has seen some decline over the past year, but this has slowed and in the past 12 weeks the sector has been in growth.