The National Frozen Food Association's 16th annual promotion, March Frozen Food Month, kicks off today with high hopes for the biggest year ever.
Last year, March sales of frozen food increased 1.5% compared with March 1997, said Lori Pohlman, vice president of communications and new media for the NFFA, based in Harrisburg, Pa.
"Since the promotion started, sales of frozen food have doubled, and it continues to grow every year," Pohlman told SN. This year, she has noticed many more media inquiries from food writers and others planning to highlight frozen food during this month. It's also been harder to keep point-of-sale materials in stock, she said. More of that material has been sold, to a greater variety of stores this year.
This year's theme is Easy Home Meals With Frozen Food. More local councils are setting up Web sites, getting involved with school and community events and donating to charitable causes. The NFFA has set up a separate Web site for the March promotion, at www.@easyhomemeals.com.
While local frozen-food councils add new elements to the promotion each year, they tend to stick with proven strategies for promoting NFFM.
For example, the Frozen Food Council of North Carolina, Charlotte, mails inserts to targeted groups. This month coupons will be sent to 1.1 million people, 700,000 coming from loyalty-club databases of two major retailers, Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., and Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C. Harris Teeter mails it to its top 150,000 frozen-food customers, and Food Lion does the same, said Peter Fulton, president of the council.
"This is the first March we had to turn anyone down; we were sold out," Fulton said. The freestanding insert in which advertising was sold contains about $15 worth of coupons. One new event this year is a Penguin 8K "fun run" and a 1-mile family fun run or walk. When SN spoke with Fulton, he was expecting 600 to 700 participants to attend the event, held Feb. 27. Runners received a packet of coupons for their participation. Money generated by the event will be donated to the Special Olympics, Fulton said.
Some councils have found that competition is the best way to fire up enthusiasm for the NFFM promotion.
The Arizona Frozen Foods Council has put a bounty on Golden and Silver Penguins: the group will give $1,000 to any council member who wins a Penguin, said Jeff Nelson, who was president last year, when Co-Sales personnel won four silver penguins and one gold at the retail level. Last year was the second time the council won the top prize. Scott Cody of Kelley-Clarke, now president of the Arizona group, has the challenge of getting the third. "It's very competitive, inside the building," said Nelson, senior vice president for frozens at Co-Sales Co., a Phoenix-based food broker.
Northern California, also looking to "three-peat" in the Golden Penguin award category, now has two Internet sites and, for the first time this year, is running a promotion on a nonfrozen item, a garlic bread that is paired with a family-sized box of frozen lasagna.
"This will be the biggest promotion we have ever done," said Jay Prisco, director of the Frozen Food Council of Northern California, San Ramon. He said the group is spending more than $400,000 this year on March promotions and events.
The council started cybercoupon.org, used to promote frozen as well as nonfrozen food products, "because we want to think beyond the box," said Prisco.
The Southern California Frozen Food Council, Newport Beach, was planning to distribute 85 million coupons through newspapers Feb. 28 and March 14, on the theme of "Frozen Meals in Minutes."
"Retailer involvement is stronger this year," reports Debra Van Der Weide, executive director of the council. Manufacturers' coupons will be featured in Albertson's, Ralphs, Vons and Food 4 Less stores. Most chains present in-store guides that point out savings, and run retail clerk display contests, with clerks and salespeople building displays in the frozen-food aisles.
The Southern California group launches a Web site today, to present meal ideas and recipes to consumers. It plans community events, Penguin visits and participation in the Los Angeles Marathon activities March 11 through 14.
A kickoff luncheon held last month drew more than 100 people, including representatives of eight retailers and a variety of brokers and manufacturers. The luncheon featured frozen-meal recipe ideas created exclusively for the SCFFC by the California Culinary Academy, San Francisco, and prepared by head chef Jim Shiebler of the San Diego College of Food, and students, using 80% frozen food and 20% fresh ingredients.
"The recipe demos helped reinforce the meal idea message that retailers, brokers and the council are trying to get out to consumers. The food really was gourmet, tasted great and was healthy," Van Der Weide said.
The East Coast is caught up in the excitement too.
"The Eastern Frosted Foods Association [Ringwood, N.J.] has a more aggressive program, with more vendor participants this year, which gives us more demonstrations, and more signs available. So it seems overall to be a larger program than in the past," said Andy Carrano, spokesman for A&P, Montvale, N.J.
The EFFA's 1999 March NFFM promotion is sold out, reports Mike Ryan, association president, with 33 participating brands.
In the Boston area, the Frozen Food Association of New England plans to reach consumers through its new Web site (www.ffane.org), and plans to promote frozen food to children through its March Frozen Food Family Fest. This is a tabletop frozen-food tasting extravaganza, the group says, which last year attracted more than 2,500 children and 6,000 industry consumers.
"This evolved from a strictly business function," explained Harold Lombardi, executive director of FFANE. Many of the frozen-food buyers were concerned that going out to preview frozen products would take time away from their families. So FFANE makes it a family event, with ice sculptors, button-making and clowns and games for children.
Buyers, category managers, owners and sales and procurement executives from supermarkets bring their families to the five-hour venue, to be held March 25 this year.
Bill Grondzik, frozen-food business manager for Acosta-PMI Sales & Marketing, Jacksonville, Fla., and an officer of the Northern Florida Frozen Food Association, is also ready for March. Store demos are planned, along with the traditional store decoration contest and a three-page full-color foldout newspaper.
The council plans store demos at Publix Super Markets and Winn-Dixie Stores in the Jacksonville metro area, with live radio remotes, all with the emphasis on frozen food as easy to prepare.
"Last year we had a nice, double-digit gain. With the enthusiasm that has been created with the 1999 program, we look to surpass last year's solid performance in moving more cases and dollars," Grondzik said.
Not everyone is unreservedly enthusiastic about National Frozen Food Month. Don Stuart, a partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., and a consultant to the grocery industry, sounded a discordant note at the NFFA's kickoff meeting, held in Amelia Island, Fla., last weekend, and hosted by the Northern Florida council. Stuart was a panelist at the meeting.
"Are we promoting the right thing?" he asked. "We've been doing this for 16 years. Frozen is equated with fresh, for vitamins and minerals, but fresh is fresher than it used to be."
The frozen industry has a lot in its favor, notably the new meal solution products like Create a Meal, by Green Giant, and Birds Eye's Voila, he added. But Stuart has doubts about whether heavily discounting frozen food for one or two months works in the long run.
Stuart's company has found that manufacturers are spending more for less. According to Cannondale's annual industry survey, "Trade Promotion Spending and Merchandising," manufacturers rate trade-promotion inefficiency as their No. 1 issue, yet they spend even more on it. "We had it increasing from 44% to 47% of the marketing budget," Stuart said, referring to statistics from last year's survey.
Eighty-four percent of manufacturers feel they are not getting good value for their trade dollars, while 62% of retailers say they are not satisfied with their share, Stuart reported. While manufacturers say trade promotion is extremely important, only 6% regard themselves as highly effective at evaluating it, Stuart told the audience.
Cannondale also found that account-specific promotion (or co-marketing) is very hot and that 84% of manufacturers plan to increase their account-specific spending over the next five years. But this strategy is not a panacea, Stuart warned.
"We've seen a rechanneling of funds from consumer and trade promotion into account-specific programs, but only 35% of retailers believe these account-specific programs pay out," he said.
Meanwhile, more money -- 56% of the marketing budget -- is going to retailers, while 44% goes direct to the consumer, Stuart said.
He left the audience with a question: "How do we not just drive product but build loyalty? That's what we are trying to do with Frozen Food Month. To have a record March is outstanding, but if you don't bring consumers in to stay with [these products], it's just a blip on the screen," he said.