2012 R&D Team Winner: ConAgra

A cross-functional team lends innovation from all segments to ensure new product success.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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"I'm also very proud of what we've done with Healthy Choice Top Chef Café Steamers. Our mantra was to create restaurant-quality food, and steaming enabled us to do that on the Healthy Choice line. When we coupled that with our marketing partnership with Bravo's 'Top Chef,' it helped us drive growth. Consumers understand that endorsements from 'Top Chef' means the food is going to taste good, and the technology enables us to actually deliver.

"We have a partnership with one of our suppliers for the Microrite technology that enables us to bring Marie Callender's Bakes to life. The packaging technology turns the microwave into an oven. It takes 40 minutes in the oven, but only 15 minutes to cook Bakes in the microwave, and we achieve better quality than you can get in the oven because the way the packaging interacts with the food to maintain even cooking," he explains.

The team collaborates with Joan Chow, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. "Marketing has done a great job. It's hard to sell technology to consumers, but I care that technology can benefit our products," he says.

"I'm also proud of the fact that we started the trend for healthier sweet potato fries [and] built a LEED-certified plant in Delhi, La., close to the source of potatoes for our Lamb Weston brand."

That last example also points to how sustainability permeates the company. "We want to make sure our manufacturing practices are good for people and the environment," says Bolles.

"From creating new products to reducing food waste to water usage, that's top of mind. In fact, this past year, ConAgra was included on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index."

Bolles says there are three important attributes for new products: taste, convenience and packaging innovation. But the company also is mindful of value. "We've launched a few products that were too premium for the marketplace or not right for a particular customer. Now, we build the price point [into the process]. In today's economy it's very important to do that. We have found that consumers are somewhat less willing to try new things because of higher price points," he says.

"It's important to provide value to the consumer," he continues. "I'm really proud of how good our less expensive products are. Our Banquet line retails for $1 to $1.25. Where can you get a good meal for that? We work in close partnership with our supply chain to make the entire process as efficient as we can and are able to pass those savings on to consumers."

Another goal is always striving to make food healthier. "We are the first company to launch a campaign to take 20 percent of the sodium out of our product portfolio by 2015," he says proudly. "We offer 190 meals under 450 calories that sell for under $3.50 to $3.99. They are a great value and portion controlled, which is one of the benefits of frozen convenient meals: You can control your weight and portions.

"All offer a good balance of macronutrients, [less] fat and saturated fat, and they taste better because of the packaging technology. Frozen entrees are no longer just TV dinners."

Bolles reveals that ConAgra instituted a Choose to Lose program with its employees. "Focusing on frozen entrees, our nutrition team, led by Dr. Mark Andon, found after several four-week trials that participants lost an average of 1.3 lbs. per week. Some kept the Healthy Choice plate, using it as a template to use at home for portion control."

New ideas come from all over. "We really encourage our organization to have an external bias," he says. "We've developed a partnership with Procter & Gamble, licensing some of their non-competitive technologies. That enables us to be far more efficient. We believe the core of great products start with consumer insights, and our job is to leverage our technologies to deliver against these insights. We're very proud of what we've achieved."

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