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Amidst all the talk of 'Euro-branding', ice cream and 'healthy' dishes in vanguard.

Amidst All the Talk of `Euro-Branding,' Ice Cream and `Healthly' Dishes in Vanguard

In a recent communication with this reporter, the venerable publisher of Quick Frozen Foods International, Ed Williams, asked that I consider updating readers on the frozen food scene in Britain and Europe. Well, I have, over more years than I really care to remember, always taken a request from Ed as being an instruction.

The request clearly illustrates that he still has an insatiable appetite for information. Perhaps this is not surprising because it is just such an ability to gather and convey information that has made Quick Frozen Foods International essential reading throughout the industry - an industry where the world is surely about to widen into the almost unexplored area of Eastern Europe.

I first met Ed Williams in the late 1950s when we in the Birds Eye (UK) company were frequent visitors to the already mature USA frozen food market. One of the earliest lessons, which greatly influenced our own very rapid developments during the '60s, was that the most successful companies were those dedicated to the belief that freezing was the outstanding method of food preservation. The sales and marketing objectives of such firms were not "blurred" by any other interests.

Since those days there certainly has been less total dedication to the maximization of frozen food opportunities as so many of the original trendsetters in the States have been "taken over" or even "hidden away" as a result of one merger after another. It cannot be denied that well meaning industrialists have not always been able to spot the profits to be made from the wholehearted dedication to a specific cause within the vast food business, and instead have looked for the quick buck. In so doing they often completely lost sight of the real reason for existence of many of the companies they acquired. And in some cases they may never have had sight of the reason in the first place!

Well, one suspects that something of this problem may already be showing itself on this side of the Atlantic. Some of the larger groups involved place a very high priority on technology and seek to base their developments on what appears to be a unique "breakthrough" which can be put before the consumer in many varied product niches across the "borders" of frozen, refrigerated or shelf stable items. I always felt that the Birds Eye division of General Foods, as it was in the good old days, lost a great deal of sales virility when the GF priority for technology took over. Of course fortunes can be made out of truly unique new food technology, but only if the egotism of the scientists is matched by the ebullience of the sales team. Today the importance of the sales role is further played down by the erroneous belief that the strong position of private label distributors has made the sales effort rather a luxury.

Then there is the desire of the larger groups not to miss out at all across the whole spectrum of food styles. For instance, one notes that Unilever has recently changed their very top structure in order to better coordinate food developments not just around the world, but also across the total food market.

Maybe they have not been too happy with their share of chilled or refrigerated volume in the UK, where they are still obviously dominant in frozen. Perhaps elsewhere they are less happy with their ice cream share, or even their frozen share. Or just maybe they do not feel that they can allow the separate development of parts of the food market in some of the countries newly open to business.

Could it be that the Nestle and Campbell groups are thinking likewise, not to mention ConAgra from the USA and United Biscuit from the UK? Meanwhile all these organizations, or their subsidiaries, continue to launch rather similar new items - a few of which may straddle the national boundaries. The featured themes being played up on each continent are "health" and "microwaveable." For example, there's Healthy Options meal from Birds Eye (UK), mirrored by Healthy Choice from ConAgra and Right Choice from Stouffer (Nestle)! Zap Snacks from ConAgra and Snack Shots from Birds Eye (UK) also have a similar ring.

More potential confusion among consumers is rapidly developing in the confectionery market. For a year or so some of the leading ice cream distributors - notably Walls in the UK - have been edging more into the chocolate-covered segment with updated versions of traditional choc ices. This trend often manifests itself on sticks for both the child and adult impulse sectors. Walls had a huge success when they launched Sky last year in the UK. Almost at the same time Mars began to widen the test market for the Mars ice cream bar, and have since put out frozen versions of some of their other old favorite count lines. They have also followed a trend towards seeking truly international branding by renaming the already successful Marathon bar Snickers, as it is already labeled outside Britain.

Now Walls has countered again with Dream, a joint development with Cadbury. So the gap between the impulse ice cream and chocolate confectionery markets is closing. The latest move is from Nestle through their Rowntree and Chamboursy subsidiaries, which together have Aero Mousse. It should be pointed out that Aero is a very well known chocolate brand in the UK.

The remarkable spell of unseasonably hot weather in the UK this spring, characterized by early May temperatures in the 80s, must have brought a broad smile to Alan Price and the Birds Eye Walls team. After record breaking sales and profits in 1989, they probably did not expect to get off to such a wonderful start in 1990.

However, this writer suspects that any success now experienced on the ice cream side of the business will have to compensate for extra costs that may be incurred with this summer's vegetable harvests. The heat units in the ground must be a headache for Birds Eye's agricultural staff, who will need all the skills they have built up over the past years if they are to get anywhere near the targets. Pity this because I had detected an improvement in key frozen vegetable sales as the public has become less enamoured with the newly presented packaged fresh products which still lack the convenience of the free flowing frozen items - and in some cases are way behind in quality. Maybe in 1990 there will be a need for the UK to import more frozen vegetables, especially peas, from Southern Europe where strangely the weather has not been so dry or hot.

This brings to mind the following line come across recently: "These days, Mrs. Thatcher possibly excepted, we are all striving to be good Europeans." A slightly exagerated comment perhaps because the man or woman in the UK street is certainly not primarily concerned with the European question at all, but rather with the introduction of the new "Community Charge" in place of the "Rating System" - a change which directly affects every citizen. Maybe the comment in the May edition of Management Today is more aceptable: "Today adopting a European strategy is widely accepted as a tactical move, and a timely one at that."

Anyway, all the European angles are being covered in pages of articles in every type of magazine and daily newspaper to the point of complete boredom.

However, some interesting details have been forthcoming about the Italian market. Under a Marketing Week headline reading "The Italian Fast-Forward," it was written that while Italy does not have a trouble-free economy, it is still one of the fastest growing consumer markets of the '90s - or will be. That nation's consumer is said to be one of the most affluent creatures to be found anywhere - and one of the most demanding. Amazingly there are reportedly more commercials on Italian TV than the combined total transmitted by national networks in France, Germany, the UK (national equivalent), Greece, Ireland and Portugal. There is little doubt that Italians are wise enough to want the best of both worlds, and this has to include the best of frozen foods. But the question remains if anyone can crack the frightful Italian distribution system which is still needed to service so many small outlets.

France is another country where the citizens are finding ways to have their cake and eat it. Compromises are constantly being made when the pressures of modern living clash with tradition. It was not so very long ago that it was doctrine that the French would never take to QFF. Look at them now!

Frozen foods were a long time taking off in West Germany. This was partly because the Unilever development there was in the hands of an already very successful ice cream company, Langnese.

Today, with Spain and Portugal joining in more recently, the frozen food industry in the whole of Western Europe exists in depth while immense opportunity remains for further development. But to quote Sir Michael Angus, the chairman of Unilever, "We have found many brand names and their livery travel well; but there will be other cases where it will help a brand to have different names as variations in languages and nuances remain."

It is possible that the closer the product is to fresh the more limited will be the scope for exact translation from one European country, or culture, to another - a cautionary tale!

As for the UK market, quite frankly this observer has seen nothing very exciting half way through 1990. Birds Eye remains dominant on the advertising scene and probably, after all these years, still produces more new items than any other company. Their main competition comes from the private label segment, which is usually an echo of the combined development efforts of all the manufacturers.

Fish prices have hardened considerably in Britain, but still the breaded and battered products appear. The convenience meat sector remains a muddle, and the ready-prepared meal offerings attract most promotional spending. Whether this is due to real consumer demand or undue manufacturer competition is arguable.

Maybe when the next edition of Quick Frozen Foods International is published there will be some really exciting information to report apart from results of the World Soccer Cup contest held in Italy.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:British and European frozen food markets
Author:Webb, Kenneth J.B.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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