For decades, frozen food brands suffered from an image problem. Perceived as low quality, frozen dinner brands were purchased for a single reason: convenience. Superb taste and clean ingredients were afterthoughts. More recently, younger consumers and new Millennial parents not burdened with memories of sodden, gloppy TV dinner-like products, are looking afresh at the freezer aisle.
Convenience remains an important driver of innovation but new players are entering the aisle, attracting the convenient food-seeking consumer and amping up the quality, elevating the standard for a category once thought to be moribund.
According to the “Global Market Study on Frozen Food: Frozen Ready Meals to be the Largest Segment by 2020,” the global frozen food market, valued at $122.1 billion in 2013, will surge to $156.4 billion in 2020. Consumers’ busy life schedules are called out as the main driver in a perceived shift toward ready-to-eat foods.
“Other drivers of growth in frozen foods market are the availability of frozen food products in different food categories, changing customer purchasing patterns, increasing urban population and the rise of women in the workforce,” the study continues. In discussing the shifting marketplace with frozen food brands, we discovered a few insights, too.
Convenient foods are king
Serafina Palandech, Founder of Hip Chick Farms, a line of organic/artisan frozen poultry products including chicken fingers, meatballs and breakfast sausages, cites frozen’s ease of use as a primary driver in consumer adoption. “The more convenient the product is,” she says, “the more people adopt it.”
Hala Achkar, Founder of Bonchou Éclairerie, noted the short shelf life and long production process of fresh eclairs as a driver for purchase of frozen eclairs. “Frozen can keep for a whole year and have the same taste. Just put them out for 30 minutes and you can serve and eat,” Achkar says.
“With the busyness of our lives, convenient foods are so important,” says Anthony Spinato, President, Spinato’s Fine Foods. “Any time we can find a high quality ingredient and put it in your freezer and cook it when you need it, that adds value and fills a need we all have.”
Are there new trends to consider?
Previously unattainable from frozen food brands, a clean ingredient label is the new must-have. “Consumers want to know what’s in what they eat,” says Spinato. “First they have to trust your food.“ Spinato cited Amy’s Kitchen as an early adopter in frozen, a brand people felt good about. “Consumers trusted them,” he says, “and they built-in a layer of convenience in a healthy and tasty way.”
Achkar is currently developing a new category for frozen foods in the United States: specialty frozen desserts. Raised in Paris, Achkar grew up shopping at Picard, a supermarket chain that sells only gourmet frozen foods. “Here [in the US], it is mostly popsicles and ice cream,” Achkar says, “but people are looking for higher quality. Desserts which are flash-frozen or frozen are coming into the category.”
The move away from traditional cow’s milk ice cream into alt-milk and non-dairy ice creams is reverberating throughout frozen food brands. “Categories are currently being re-assigned,” says Taryn Segal, CEO of Double Rainbow Ice Cream. “You may be in dairy or non-dairy,” Segal says. “Or you might be placed next to novelty or next to cake. And if you get dropped into the well, the lid becomes more important to tell your story.” Segal also notes that pints are trending as retailers prefer to stock more SKUs than before.
Premium moves into frozen
The rise and adoption of clean ingredient labels is a signal that frozen is shifting beyond just convenience and into better for you, culinary offerings. “It’s been about fresh fresh fresh for so long,” says Spinato, “but now there is a belief that it is OK to eat frozen.
At Hip Chick Farms, Palandech knew everyone loved chicken nuggets and set out to make the product as clean as possible. “We knew that if we froze the product, we could maintain its integrity and not have to add any junk,” she says. “It was the easiest way for us to keep it simple. We use an individually quick-frozen process, like a spiral freezer, which keeps ice crystals small.”
Achkar uses her grandfather’s recipe to craft a product from real butter and 72% Belgian chocolate. “Most eclairs in supermarkets are dairy-free,” she says, using palm oil instead of butter. “That’s not a real French éclair. We only use ingredients that are accepted in the natural channel,” Achkar says.
Patrick Mateer, Founder and CEO of Seal the Seasons, developed a line of flash-frozen local fruits and vegetables that are grown, packed, and sold within the region, which gives local farms a market for produce year-round. “We make it as local as possible from a food and economic perspective,” Mateer says.
It was – and is – about taste
With the ingredient list pared to a minimum, often organic, and always high caliber, frozen foods like chicken nuggets, ice cream and pizza can be every day items for many consumers. “Taste is what helps get people to the aisle in the first place,” says Palandech. “You can have a great core mission and humanely raised proteins but people still have to taste it. Chicken fingers, chicken nuggets – they are mass consumer products. Kids eat them endlessly. It is very pedestrian but we flipped the story and made it high quality.”
Spinato, who recently launched a line of gluten-free pizzas with a broccoli and cheese crust, sees something similar in the pizza category. “With pizza, we think of the mom with the kids and it was for your cheat or no-cook day. But when you make a crust out of real broccoli and change the entire pizza, it becomes something people can eat more often and feel good about it.”
Frozen food packaging and design considerations
Your packaging can betray you
“We didn’t previously use cardboard of the right thickness so the package would get soggy,” says Palandech. Hip Chick Farms also had early problems with sealants, choosing a glue that unsealed at a specific temperature. “The package would pop open,” she says.
Grocery freezers pose unique challenges
Shoppers can’t smell or touch the product before purchase, pushing frozen food brands to rely on packaging to communicate the excellence inside. “It’s taking care of your brand,” says Spinato. “Our packaging expresses our handmade quality.”
“One of the things we had to consider,” Spinato says, “is that retailers will stack you even if you pay for a facing. We had to adjust our packaging to get the consumer’s attention.” He sought to create a brand look that communicated not only artisan, but crafted with care. “We make our pizza with our own hands and the package conveys that. We had to tell the story on-pack of what is in the box.” Spinato’s previously had a black package, “but,” Spianto says, “it is not a color to use for fresh, high quality and specialty. Black didn’t pop. Orange radiates.”
The consumer has endless choice
“The consumer is up for grabs. You want brand recognition and consumer trust,” says Segal. “When they come back to the shelf, no matter where you are merchandised, you want them to be willing to try a new flavor.”
Portion size matters
Achkar crafted a mini-éclair with 70 calories and one teaspoon of sugar to reflect the reality of how consumers want to eat. “Minis are in moderation and super-important for portion-control,” she says. “They are bite-sized and can be a daily indulgence.”
Achkar is changing Bonchou Éclairerie packaging right now to make it more fun, flashy, and attractive to the eye. “We used to have a big picture of the éclair,” she says, but adjusted that to reflect the product’s real size on-pack. “We also made it look super-delicious, highlighting nutritional info and the authentic Parisian recipe.”
Products still need to tell their unique story
“Just by putting the state of origin on the front of the package, it sells itself,” Mateer of Seal the Seasons says. “But our package doesn’t communicate the ‘why,’” he says. He is about to undertake a re-design to better differentiate Seal the Season’s veggies and berries in the aisle.
Frozen is growing, presenting a previously unseen opportunity to grab the convenience-seeking consumer. New, innovative products are moving into the frozen aisle, increasing competition among brands while offering consumers an endless array of choice. The unique challenge of selling frozen coupled with increased competition for wallet share makes frozen food branding and packaging design more important than in any other category. With more choices than ever, “we have to stay relevant,” says Segal. How will your brand stay relevant?