Spotlight: A consumer panel rates Signature Desserts

For a boxed cake mix, this delighted consumers with innovation and great taste.

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By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley,
Consumer Understanding Editors


Cakes have been linked to celebrations and special events since the ancient Greeks. Chiffon cakes in 1927 were the first really new development in cake making. Harry Baker of the Brown Derby, a trendy restaurant of the time for the Hollywood set, invented the original chiffon cake in that year. His key was using vegetable oil in place of conventional shortening.

In 1947, General Mills bought the recipe and the secret ingredient vegetable oil. The cake mix was introduced in Better Homes and Gardens magazine in May 1948 and was a nationwide sensation during the 1950s.

The top flavors of cake mix today are white, yellow and chocolate. Fat is a key element for this recipe. With oil always in a liquid state at room temperature, one is able to have a chiffon cake stay soft and fresh longer. The fat coats the flour proteins and protects them from moisture and from forming gluten when mixed.

Chiffon cakes can be modified by processing, flavorings, frostings and additions. But can you take a box-mix chiffon cake and elevate it with a novel flavor and improved consistency to rival something out of a bakery?

Understanding the marketplace

In 2002, cake mix sales in the U.S. were $400 million, but they have been dropping 3 percent yearly since. Brownie mixes, not cake mixes, have been the star with a growth rate of 7 percent in 2003, according to Information Resources Inc. With the drop in consumer baking, baking mix companies have scrambled to create new products that appeal to a time-starved consumer with the taste of fresh, home cooking.

Betty Crocker (General Mills), Duncan Hines (Procter & Gamble) and Pillsbury were the major brands for many years. The recent story of Duncan Hines is typical in the food industry. Aurora Foods purchased Duncan Hines cake mixes in 1998. Earlier this year, Aurora merged with Pinnacle Foods. (Also of note: General Mills purchased Pillsbury, so those brands are under the same ownership today.)

It’s difficult to innovate when you’re being bought, sold and merged. The key issue for the folks at Duncan Hines is how to innovate while driving profitability. Duncan Hines is leveraging its cake mix expertise and brand name to create easy-to-make, indulgent dessert baking kits. And all this is happening in a marketplace that shows some signs of a lack of interest in sweet, grain-based consumables.

Cake mixes have been around for a long time with many consumers using them to feel as if they have “made a cake” (which they have). More than 30 percent of consumers will customize the mix to make it “theirs.” This customization can include frostings, added nuts, fruits and chips or changing the size or form of the cake (cupcakes, layer, pan, etc.). Most cake mixes do not always deliver a finished product that is similar to the beauty shot on the package.

The Duncan Hines brand is based on more than 50 years of trust. The brand is said to reflect the sprit of Duncan Hines, a respected food critic, and its products are designed to inspire the consumer’s love of baking. Its mixes are starting points that reflect the home baker’s personal touch.

This product delivers: "The consumer could definitely trust she would end up with a premium cake from this mix," say the authors.
Insights

Our Crave It!, Insight: Crave It! and It!s Convenient studies integrate more than 30 conjoint studies to generate databases that can be used to understand the experience of foods. They tell us sweets are at the top of the list of craveable foods.

Cheesecake, fresh fruit, ice cream, chocolate candy, donuts, cinnamon rolls, and chocolate chip cookies have all been tracked for craveability. Attributes that count the most for sweet dessert items are: premium quality, real with simple ingredients, melts in your mouth, smoothness with density, creamy, just to your liking, freshness, lots of flavor, a joy for the senses and home cooking.

Desserts are about the brand, fresh out of the oven, the texture (melts in your mouth). Desserts are very much about making them with or for someone significant. The key attributes are a mixture of product characteristics such as appearance, taste, texture and aroma, plus emotional attributes. Desserts are consumed after lunch, mid-afternoon or late evening.

While men and women alike are fond of desserts like cakes, the It!s foundation bases strongly show that more women will comment and discuss desserts than men (who tend to favor savory items like steak, roast beef sandwiches, and sausage).

Key trends are convenience and indulgence.

Convenience: Manufacturers are responding to hectic lifestyles by creating packaging kits that assist convenience. Product trends that have done well are “fresh from the oven” (less than 15 minutes) or products that kids can make easily or with a parent as part of a bonding activity. Ensuring all ingredients (except for wet ingredients) are in the package is a requirement.

Indulgence: Pleasure is important in this busy world. As more consumers expect a higher level of indulgence every day, they expect high quality (more restaurant-like). Simple white or chocolate cakes do not stand out when placed next to a chocolate silk torte. It is the familiar with a touch of the exotic that meets consumers’ demands.

The experience

Duncan Hines Signature Desserts are available in three varieties: Boston Cream Pie, Chocolate Silk Torte and Orange Dreamsicle. Prices are $3.59-3.99. While Boston Cream Pie and Chocolate Silk Torte are chocolate-based specialties, the Orange Dreamsicle is based on mom’s or grandma’s recipes from the 1930s, and so brings back feelings of comfort food. This is the product we tested.

Orange has had a big resurgence in a wide range of products from clothing and household appliance colors to the active agent in cleaners. The package for Signature Desserts is a red box with a script across the top and the product flavor burst, which details what is in the baking kit and implies its premium quality. The beauty shot of a slice of cake looks like a real bakery image. The Orange Dreamsicle struck many of the testers as very interesting due to the wavy orange flavor in the cake and the thought of a creamy contrast.

Flavor (aroma and by mouth), texture (light and moist) and appearance are critical to the perception of quality in a cake. Time is a factor that can completely transform the product and its usage occasions. This cake is made in six steps, which are clearly described and easy to follow but multi-faceted. This takes a little bit of time and a few utensils to get to the final product.

The orange cake was light and very moist due to the syrup (sugar -- not corn syrup -- and gelatin) that was added. The aroma of orange that came from the warm syrup was real and pleasant and excited the cook. What was truly exciting was that once the cake was assembled following the directions, it actually looked like the cake on the box! Some of our tasters have been making foods from mixes for almost 50 years and this was a first.

The flavor was polarizing. For those who like creamy orange flavors, this cake was spot-on with the flavor. It was perceived as either bakery or really homemade. For those chocoholics who think chocolate is not sweet, they found the flavor to be too fruity and sweet but still pleasant. It was indulgent. It was just like the cakes your mom or a baking friend made, so it was comforting and memorable. It was convenient in that the cook did not have to buy the frosting separately. And the frosting – orange mousse – was light in texture and not too sweet (like most chocolate and vanilla container frostings).

Does the product deliver?

Duncan Hines is about trust and premium cake mixes. The mix must be moist and light and not cloyingly sweet as many mixes have become today. The consumer could definitely trust she would end up with a premium cake from this mix. (A consumer can make it even more premium if she adds the easy finishing touches suggested on the side panel.) This product delivers. It delights!

How to make it bigger

We were impressed as we considered the idea behind this innovation. Find a bunch of ingredients that can be delivered in a box and make an innovative difference (like the sugar syrup, it really changes the texture and flavor of the cake).

This is a convenient product for people who like to cook but don’t have enough time. The resulting cake is fresh, moist and flavorfully unique. Just familiar enough -- a dreamsicle for those who remember the cakes made this way in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s -- yet different enough that it is unique on the grocery shelf.

However, in today’s households, family sizes vary widely. Large families can easily eat this cake in one sitting, smaller families will take longer. A way to make this idea bigger would be to think of a way to have the luxury appearance but not have to eat the whole cake in one occasion.

Can this idea be the same if the kit goes even further and moves to where premixed cookies are? A cake that would just need squeezing out and cooking might be faster for the consumer. But will it spoil the fun?

The use of fresh flavors and great colors made this special. And the right level of ingredients allowed for the delivery of a special cake that no one has ever encountered. No baking fear here.

Rating: The product does deliver on the promises.

Market Potential: Good for the category. We don’t expect to see this category itself growing by leaps, but with products like this we know that adaptations in other parts of the market will occur. Indulgent cakes do not often come from cake mixes. This is an example of a kit that can show others in other categories how to bring kits to another level. A true example of innovation.

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