Only in a society where health consciousness reigns, can kale become a fad. So it would seem that times would be tough for peddlers of dietary demons such as salt. But when one of Canada's oldest salt brands recently decided to remake its image, it had little to do with health concerns. Instead, K+S Windsor Salt Ltd., based in Pointe-Claire, Que., needed to give itself a more "premium" image.
"If you looked at the shelves 15 years ago, you'd probably see three or four salt brands that were very commodity-type products," said Luc Savoie, Windsor's vice-president of sales and marketing. "Now, we see a trend where the consumer is willing to pay more for salt with different features."
Too much sodium in one's diet can contribute to high blood pressure and other health problems. Canadians eat too much of it, and among Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's campaign promises was a pledge to reduce sodium in processed foods. But while the volume of salt being sold in Canada is roughly flat, Mr. Savoie said, sales are actually up, thanks to pricier products, such as sea salt and prefilled salt grinders. Mr. Savoie connects this to the increasing popularity of cooking shows, and general interest in food that has taken the "foodie" movement from niche to mainstream.
Windsor's new look, which began shipping to stores this month, makes the packaging design less crowded. An old-fashioned loopy script is replaced with a cleaner font; most products were given a more consistent blue colouring; and the logo, which looks like the top of a castle turret, was retooled to include a silver wave at the bottom.
These may sound like small details, but tiny changes in design can communicate a very different image to consumers. Windsor conducted research using planograms – illustrations of products on store shelves – to see whether test shoppers' eyes were drawn to various candidates for the new design.
Windsor is attempting to achieve a more high-end look to reflect the range of pricing for salt products at retail stores. "Our goal is to be on the table with that bottle of wine, and the nice cheese that the consumer is buying," Mr. Savoie said.
There is an important opportunity here: One popular table salt sells for around $1.30 per kilogram in Canada, according to research firm Nielsen, while kosher salt is roughly double the price; and with specialty salts such as Mediterranean sea salt and pink Himalayan salt, the prices can vary even more widely – including products that clock in at $17 to $27 a kilogram, and up. Specialty salts – which now account for nearly half of the $30.7-million annual retail salt market in Canada – are often sold in smaller formats such as grinders; consumers may not notice just how much more they cost on a per-kilogram basis, even if they're willing to pay more.
According to a representative for grocery chain Longo's, demand for specialty salt has quadrupled in recent years. Specialty salts now take up significantly more shelf space, and there are entire specialty salt sections at many Longo's stores. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – with whom grocery chain Sobeys Inc. has a marketing partnership – sells his own line of salt grinders including Mediterranean sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, and thyme, lemon and bay salt. Windsor has been working with chefs to have its products appear on Food Network shows.
"There is an opportunity to reach the foodie, or people who want to experiment with food," said Carman Allison, vice-president of consumer insights at Nielsen, pointing to the popularity of higher-end retailers such as Whole Foods and products such as free-range eggs and Greek yogurt. "We see premium [food] brands doing really well in Canada."
Nielsen's annual health-and-wellness survey of roughly 10,000 Canadians has seen concerns about sodium rise steadily over the last number of years, but salt sales are still increasing: In the past year, on a tonnage basis, sales are up 2 per cent while on a dollar basis, sales have risen 11 per cent in Canada.
One reason that cooking salt may not have as negative an image is that it accounts for relatively little of our sodium intake: Salt added during cooking is about 6 per cent of Canadians' average daily intake, while that added at the table is about 5 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. Processed foods are overwhelmingly the biggest culprit for sodium, at 77 per cent.
Then again, Nielsen's own research has found that, while consumers are changing their buying habits with the other nutritional big bad – sugar – and steering away from sugary products, such as cereals and soft drinks, sales of salty snacks have been growing consistently over the past five years.
"Even though consumers are concerned about health and wellness, the salty snack category is doing really well," Mr. Allison said.