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ConAgra Says Healthy Choice Can Be Tasty, Too
posted by admin on 22/08/06

The company will spend $40 million on a multiyear campaign

Inside a sleek, wood-paneled kitchen, chefs are pouring lemon juice and wine into dishes with names like roasted chicken chardonnay and beef merlot. Typical frozen fare, it isn't.

That's the point of this scene from ConAgra Food Inc.'s most ambitious advertising campaign for its 18-year-old Healthy Choice brand. Starting Aug. 28, the Omaha company will spend as much as $40 million on a multiyear campaign that will place Healthy Choice ads on morning and evening newscasts on CBS, ABC and NBC, as well as on programs such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and "Live with Regis and Kelly." In January, ads promoting the brand will run in publications such as "Men's Health," "Woman's Day" and "Cooking Light."

The campaign seeks to puncture public perceptions that frozen health food is bland and tasteless. It is part of Chief Executive Gary Rodkin's effort to better promote his ailing company's most promising brands, including Healthy Choice and Hebrew National. Mr. Rodkin has said he places these brands, as well as Chef Boyardee, Orville Redenbacher and Pam, among ConAgra's "high focus" brands, and it is likely they will also get increased marketing attention.

For years, ConAgra spread its advertising budget across a disparate portfolio that included a host of underperforming brands, many in its refrigerated-meats businesses, which Mr. Rodkin has begun selling. In June, ConAgra launched a major ad campaign for Hebrew National, one of its better-known brands, attempting to capitalize on kosher's health-driven crossover appeal. ConAgra's ad budget for the fiscal year ended May 28 was $337 million, up from $321 million the previous year.

In a June earnings conference call, Mr. Rodkin told food-industry analysts that ConAgra has a lot of "latent equity," or "household names that people clearly haven't heard much about or seen much excitement about over X number of years that just need a little bit of tender loving care."

The new Healthy Choice campaign, dubbed "The Choices We Make," plays up the fine-dining nature of the brand, which in recent months has undergone significant adjusting. It is also an attempt to further distinguish Healthy Choice in a frozen health-food category that industry executives say is plagued by the stigma of offering flavorless dishes.

Instead of the cheery moms who are standard fixtures of food commercials, the new slate of 30-second Healthy Choice spots show chefs working in a test kitchen, talking about the benefits of sweetening food with a dose of wine instead of sugar, for instance, and using various spices besides salt. "Who needs salt when you've got rosemary, dill, basil?" asks one chef, pointing to a batch of fresh spices on a granite counter-top.

The company spent nearly 18 months overhauling the brand, aiming to attract increasingly food-savvy consumers who have become accustomed to eating dishes like ceviche and toppings such as chipotle sauce, which a few years ago few Americans were even aware of. ConAgra created new dishes, such as the Healthy Choice Round Pizzas, which will arrive on store shelves next year.

"The message is, you can have healthy food, but it's also going to taste great," Jacqueline McCook, ConAgra's chief growth officer, says.

The company also redesigned product packages to show lush pictures of food resembling those in magazines such as "Bon Appétit," and playing up the increased focus on marinating, fire grilling and slow roasting meats and vegetables. ConAgra also added fruit-based desserts to entrees.

The ads will target people age 35 to 45, women as well as men, who make up nearly half of the brand's consumers, the company said.

The agency Nitro Group began developing the ads in June. Chris Clarke, the firm's CEO, said he didn't include average consumers in the spots because he wanted to "emphasize the effort that the Healthy Choice team [takes] in balancing taste and health." Besides, Mr. Clarke added, "Heating up a Healthy Choice frozen meal doesn't take much effort."

The campaign will also include in-store advertising, such as fliers attached to shelves, as it has in the past. Some of the television commercials will run on the company's Healthy Choice Web site,

Write to Steven Gray at

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