Once on trend with the dieting consumer, Lean Cuisine and its eponymous message are no longer what consumers want — and proving a wake-up call for parent company Nestle.
"Americans are just simply not dieting anymore," says Jeff Hamilton, Nestle USA’s president of prepared foods.
Weakening processed food sales, like in the company’s Lean Cuisine sector, are driving it to new strategies — like searching for trends on social media and a quicker R&D turnaround — to focus on individual consumer needs.
A tweet is worth a slew of ingredients
The rise of social media has had a ripple effect across industries, and food is no different. A tweet about a restaurant meal is now more palpable than ever before, because an iteration of that meal could stock grocery shelves.
"Where it used to take four to five years for an idea to go from one small restaurant in San Francisco or New York to being something that you might find on the shelves of Wal-Mart ... today that can frequently happen in one to two years," Hamilton says.
The quicker turnaround happens for a couple reasons; marketers are watching trends more closely, and retailers similarly are wanting to get ahead of the competition, all under the giant umbrella that is social media.
"That’s certainly where we look first and foremost," he says.
Hamilton says they're putting money today in sriracha and chipotle, more bolder, ethnic flavors driving culinary preference, in addition to those from a "new health" perspective, like high-protein, gluten-free, and organic.
The consumer shift
For Hamilton the changes in American eating habits, specifically within the last five years comes down to a simple point.
"You see a much greater concern around what’s in their food, where it comes from, who makes it," he says. "Certainly that influences the way we need to formulate our own products."
Consumers want ingredients on labels to math what that they could find in their kitchen.
Focusing on calories, fats, and carbs are out, and new health benefits are in. Approximately 20% of 3,800 adults surveyed by NPD Group said they were on a diet in 2012, a decrease from the highest at 31% in 1991.
Quality — local, artisanal, how familiar the ingredients are — and culinary preference — ethnic cuisine interest increase — plus health benefits make up a three-pronged approach to how Nestle looks to appease individual consumers.
"The actual criteria and what matters has become a very individual thing," Hamilton says.
The brand makeover
Over the last two years, Lean Cuisine has seen a 20% sales decrease. It’s now been divvied up into four sub-ranges:
Marketplace — where the vast majority of innovation and marketing dollars are heading, according to Hamilton — specifically has shown promise, with strong early returns in retail numbers after being on the market for a month. “We think that’s a good representation of doing the right things,” he says.
It features the bolder, ethnic cuisine and high-protein, organic, and gluten-free qualities on trend today.
Hamilton says the scale the company has to offer its consumers is something plaguing smaller companies fighting for their place in the food industry. A strategy employed by many companies involves acquiring smaller, more nimble brands that are better equipped with products catering to today’s consumer.
"I think you can go about it either way," he says, noting his focus is keeping existing brands on trend.
What the future holds
Lean Cuisine isn't Nestle's only U.S. brand facing change. Its frozen pizza segment will no longer include artificial flavorings by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the company vowed in February to only use natural colors and flavors in its chocolate candy, also by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Greek yogurt is on trend with consumers' interest in more protein — something General Mills' Yoplait brand is banking on, though it looks as if the yogurt trend is, ironically enough, now focused on fat.
"We are looking at all the food content we have that can come with Greek yogurt recipes and different ways to demonstrate its versatility as opposed to just thinking about it as something to have in the morning for breakfast or mid-morning snack," Yoplait marketing manager Susan Pitt recently told Food Dive.
As old brands fall out of favor and new ones appear, options are waning for brands not paying attention to consumers.
"The brands that will survive very clearly are the brands that keep up with the trends and resonate with the way Americans are eating today ... I do think they’ll continue to be a representation of smaller, newer brands and the larger, more traditional brands," Hamilton says.