One of the most enduring images of McCain Foods Ltd. advertising is a commercial from the 1980s. Designed to appeal to parents looking for convenient ways to feed their kids – and a few moments of blessed peace and quiet – it featured a bespectacled little boy named Jay, happily and silently munching at a plate full of Superfries.
The company's latest campaign, which launches on television on Monday, however, looks very different. There are no children. Plenty of couples and groups of friends, but not the typical vision of family life so familiar in commercials. The Canadian frozen food manufacturer is responding to a demographic shift: roughly 60 per cent of Canadian households are now made up of two people or less.
McCain is not giving up on families with kids, who are still its core market. But it is hoping to expand its reach among a wider swath of the Canadian population. And since younger consumers are especially skeptical of convenience food, it is in the midst of a rebranding to portray its products as healthy, and almost as good as fresh.
"Consumers are more and more seeking natural products," said Vikram Bawa, McCain's vice-president of marketing. "We looked at developing this new look, our new logo, that communicates naturalness, and warmth."
The brand refresh has been a year and a half in the making. Since August, the company has replaced 90 per cent of its potato packaging on store shelves with the new look. While the old black-box logo will remain a part of McCain's corporate materials, on packages the name brand now appears in a landscape with a golden sun shining over a field, with birds silhouetted in the sky.
McCain's research shows that Canadians eat potatoes 105 times a year – a couple of times a week – on average. But they only eat frozen potatoes 15 times a year on average.
"That's not enough," Mr. Bawa said.
And that's in a corner of the frozen food aisle that is in relatively good shape. The $282.7-million market for frozen potatoes in Canada is actually growing, at a faster pace than the sluggish frozen food market over all. Research firm Datamonitor forecasts a 5.28-per-cent compound annual growth rate for frozen potatoes from 2012 to 2016.
Compare that with frozen foods, which are expected to grow 2.7 per cent over the same period, and frozen ready-to-eat meals which will grow 2.2 per cent, according to Datamonitor.
The watchword in health recently has been to shop the periphery of the supermarket and whenever possible, to cook fresh, natural foods from scratch. Parts of the food industry associated with the middle of the supermarket, including convenience foods, are struggling to adapt.
McCain recently sold its pizza business to Dr. Oetker. Aside from potatoes, it also manufactures frozen desserts and Pizza Pockets. It will be changing the packaging of those products with the new logo soon.
Steel producers and can manufacturers have been concerned about declining shipments in canned food for years. In the United States, the Canned Food Alliance has been lobbying to include canned fruit salad in school lunch programs, and has commissioned research to prove canned food is nutritious. Another association, the Can Manufacturers Institute, launched a marketing campaign called Cans Get You Cooking, to convince shoppers to use canned food as part of their meal preparation more often.
For both canned and frozen foods, the challenge is to battle a growing skepticism toward food products that seem artificial.
While it may seem a stretch to pitch french fries as healthy (baked or non-trans-fat varieties notwithstanding) McCain's priority is to prove they come from a natural source. Since 2010, it has been stripping out the more difficult to pronounce ingredients from its products to appeal to shoppers who are reading those labels more closely.
"Consumers are asking us a lot more to look at healthier offerings. It's about cleaner ingredients," Mr. Bawa said. "All the manufacturers today are looking at that. ... All the chemical words, you will not find in our ingredient deck."
The new campaign represents a significant increase in McCain's marketing spending this year – focused on television, in-store promotions and online. Traditionally, the company has not spent as much on digital advertising, but is doing more in this area in a bid to reach younger consumers.
The frozen food aisle is cold, and shoppers tend to move through it more quickly. The new logo is also designed to help McCain packages be easily visible in the frozen food cases.
Some of the ads will be pitching the products as "modifries," showing how cooks can add ingredients such as Cajun spices or fresh chives and parmesan cheese, to bring frozen food into meal preparation.
"This is an evolution," Mr. Bawa said. "And there's a lot more to come."