Product Spotlight: Hamburger Helper -- Instantly and For One

General Mills sets many new benchmarks with this single product: for convenience, snacking and empowering teens.

By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

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Meal kits for years have been a way to quickly prepare a family meal. The first packaged meal kit was most likely Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, created in 1937. Hamburger Helper was introduced in 1971 in response to a meat shortage and escalating meat prices.

Hamburger Helper allowed homemakers to stretch a single pound of hamburger into a meal for five. The initial flavors reflected foods that were familiar to most Americans, including Italian, Cheesy and Mexican. The brand was so impactful Food Network listed it No. 3 among the top five fad foods of the 1970s.

The landscape of meal kit options has changed considerably due to constant innovation. For General Mills, the issue has been to find new, leveragable drivers for growth in the category. Since the product is about familiar, comfort foods, not about premiumness or gourmet, the key for Hamburger Helper is to make it even more convenient for its consumers. That convenience has been defined as time and ease of preparation.

Enter Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles. General Mills shrank the familiar and filling meal into a single-serving pouch, included all the ingredients (including freeze-dried ground beef) and made it microwavable, with a strong nod to the unsupervised but hungry after-school crowd. In this review, our consumer panel tested and tasted the Stroganoff flavor.

Understanding the marketplace

Convenience always has been a trend in the food industry. It is what the packaged food industry is all about. Meal kits provide convenience. They are fast, easy to prepare, have less cleanup and, because they are based on familiar flavors, the entire family is likely to eat them.

The meal kit category has been expanded to include dry meals, pre-cooked meats, frozen foods and restaurant warm-and-serve meals. New brands that have entered (and exited) the dry category include: Banquet Homestyle Bakes, Campbell's Supper Bakes, Stove Top Oven Classics and Lipton Sizzle and Stir. Kits come with spices, pasta and vegetables and may or may not include meat to make a complete meal.

Sales for dry dinner mixes (non-meat) are down almost 1 percent with overall sales of $495 million, according to 2005 IRI figures. Hamburger Helper has almost half the market. The category grew significantly between 2000 and 2003 due to kits incorporating meat, and this part of the category tripled in size. In 2003, low-carb diets impacted the category and sales declined about 9-10 percent. Once low-carb diets waned, the next wave of innovation came from other convenience foods: frozen and refrigerated products, fast food and restaurant pick-up.

Sales of pasta dry dinner mixes were nearly flat in 2005, and non-pasta meal kits were down 8.1 percent. Sales of frozen meal starters rose 27.8 percent, and refrigerated kit sales more than tripled, according to ACNielsen 2006 figures. The number of households with children is declining and consumers are looking for healthier, gourmet options; yet the need for familiar, comfortable foods has not gone away.

Less time and fewer cooking skills mean consumers can't spend a lot of time on food preparation. At least half of all households are too tired, due to their busy lives, to make elaborate dinners. Younger consumers don't want to take the time: 60 percent of 18-34-year-olds said they don't have the time for all the fuss, versus just 33 percent of over-55-year-olds. Similarly, 56 percent of households with annual income exceeding $50,000 also said they were too busy for long-form meal preparation, versus 41 percent of households making less than $25,000 a year, according to 2003 AC Nielsen figures.
Competition comes from take-out/pick-up, with one out of every four meals and snacks coming from restaurant food, according to Mintel Intl. Americans have been spending 47 percent of their food dollars on restaurant food, according to a 2004 USDA report.

With this change in meals is a redefinition of what is a snack food. Snack foods no longer encompass just salty snacks but also can be mini meals, bars, soups, appetizers … in short, a smaller portion of almost any food. While snack foods have traditionally been about fun, satiety and healthiness are new motivations.

Sales of packaged snack foods topped $61 billion in 2005 with a growth rate of 6 percent since 2001, according to a 2006 Packaged Facts report. The key growth areas have been in categories such as yogurt, fresh fruit and meat snacks … i.e., the categories that are more "food-like" and carry a healthy glow. Lower growth rates have occurred in categories such as cookies and piece candy. The idea of portion control, driven by the simplicity of 100-calorie packages (a remake idea from diets of 1923), has driven even more growth in the snack category.

With Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles, General Mills is using the brand, portion size, the convenience of all needed components in the package and microwavability to create a new snack that is more "food-like." The product delivers familiar, comforting flavors and textures and is a bit healthier than many other snackable foods.

Insights

Looking across our Crave It! and Healthy You! conjoint studies, we find convenient soups or stews are about chunks of fresh vegetables and meats made the old-fashioned way, something special, simply the best and classic flavors. Pastas sauces are about zesty, robust flavors, homemade tastes, thick and hearty sauces with chunks of real meat, made with fresh ingredients, with essential minerals and antioxidants and healthy eating that tastes great. All these studies show flavor, tradition, hearty or chunky and the meat itself are what consumers are looking for in convenient, healthy, craveable meals.

The key attributes for a convenient soup or stew are taste, aroma, appearance, healthiness and price. The key attributes for a healthy pasta meal are taste, price, portion size, appearance and amount of fat. Calories, brand and convenience are further behind. In both cases, taste is critical. Aroma gets us to a more craveable convenient food. Appearance is how we judge these foods. And they must fit within our price/value trade offs.

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