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With Maple Leaf’s new product line, a big company tries to look small

A product from Maple Leaf's new "Canadian Craft" line.

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At Maple Leaf Foods Inc., lunch was served – but it was not the kind of spread you might expect from the makers of such no-nonsense fare as bologna and hot dogs. Instead, shareholders attending the company's annual general meeting were greeted with a charcuterie selection laid out on rustic wooden boards, artfully displayed with a range of cheeses, Dijon mustard, grapes and figs.

It was all part of a launch that has been more than two years in the making at Maple Leaf: an "artisanal" line of meats designed to appeal to consumers whose palates are becoming more refined.

Maple Leaf's consumer research showed that people were looking for more "exciting" flavours at the grocery store. The new "Canadian Craft" product line includes offerings such as Canadian Whisky and Apple Bacon, Atlantic coarse Salt Prosciutto and Ontario Inspired Cherrywood Smoked Ham. The line is being marketed to people who are more interested in cooking at home; who want to try foods with which they may be unfamiliar; and who want to know more about where that food comes from.

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The "foodie" has moved out of niche culture and into the mainstream, helped partly by the popularity of celebrity chefs and Food Network-style cooking shows. Just last week, Bell Media announced that it is planning to launch its first-ever "foodie network," Gusto, later this year.

And other food brands have been attempting to respond: Loblaw Cos. Ltd. launched its Black Label house brand in 2011 to appeal to foodie shoppers. Last year, Cracker Barrel redesigned its packaging and launched a nationwide ad campaign in Canada in an attempt to give the brand a more high-end feel. Brewing giants have been launching more "craft" style beers. Consumers are paying more for seasonings, too: sales of sea salt are growing and recently Canadian brand Windsor Salt redid its packaging for a "premium" look.

"Consumers told us they want new flavours," Gayan Fernando, the director of marketing at Maple Leaf who is overseeing the launch of Canadian Craft, said.

At the same time, for those who did not grow up eating prosciutto and capicollo, the company decided to balance that newness with Canadian regional flavours, such as Montreal Steak Spice and Quebec Maple, to appeal to those who like to "eat local." Partnering with smaller regional producers, such as the Glenora distillery in Cape Breton, N.S., for the whisky bacon, may also help to lend some authenticity to the product lineup.

The ad campaign, launching later this month, will also attempt to evoke that regional association. Each ad will feature a character reflecting on a memory that the taste of one of the products evokes.

"We want to take a nostalgic approach to make the flavours seem more accessible," Niall Kelly, creative director at ad agency John St., which is handling the English-language ads, said.

Sales of processed meats are growing. The $1.2-billion market for prepackaged luncheon meats has seen sales grow 7 per cent this year, as of the beginning of April, according to research firm Nielsen. (Canadian Craft will also be sold out of the package, at the deli counter.)

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Maple Leaf will be advertising the new product line on TV, as well as through digital and social media channels. The company has increased its marketing budget a full 30 per cent this year – partly to keep pace with a spate of new products that are launching, but also to invest more heavily in digital channels.

Maple Leaf will be creating recipes around the products and shooting "Buzzfeed-style" overhead videos to showcase the line in the best light possible. Much of the styling of the new line is designed to appeal to everyday foodies: Even the logo itself looks as though it were charred into a wooden serving board. The new look has a lot to do with changing tastes, said Adam Grogan, senior vice-president of marketing and innovation.

"We took great inspiration [in the design] from craft beer," he said.

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