Bumble Bee Mesquite Grilled Albacore Tuna Steak

Bumble Bee takes pouched tuna one step higher with Mesquite Grilled Albacore Tuna Steak.

By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

The first canned tuna appeared in the U.S. in 1903, when a Californian fish packer was having trouble getting enough sardines and began processing albacore tuna instead. Customers liked the “white meat” fish, and the canned tuna industry was born.

Tuna should fit in well with current dietary trends. In today’s marketplace, protein consumption has been increasing due to the low-carb diet. Americans ate about 15.6 lbs. of seafood per person in 2003, up from 14.8 lbs. in 2001. Of that, 10.3 lbs. were fresh or frozen, 4.2 lbs. were canned and 0.3 lbs. were cured. While the fresh and frozen products experienced a 1 percent sales increase -- fish fillets and steaks actually increased by 3 percent -- there was a 10 percent decrease in canned products, according to the Commerce Dept.'s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So why is the consumer not choosing canned tuna products at a time of increased protein consumption? Each of the major canned tuna brands is addressing this issue in different strategic ways.

Understanding the marketplace

Star-Kist dominates the U.S. retail tuna business with about 40 percent market share. Bumble Bee has 24 percent and Chicken of the Sea 18 percent, according to industry analyst Henk Brus in a June 13, 2002 report (see www.atuna.com).

The fish category overall has been driven by positive health news. But tuna has experienced flat sales since 1999, while other fish categories have grown. Mintel International projects slightly better times ahead, with sales of the canned tuna segment increasing 15 percent between 2004 and 2009, compared to 21 percent growth projected for the whole fish/seafood category.

The three major players have looked to generate growth in different ways. Star-Kist with its new parent Del Monte is intent on premium brandship and marketing. Its products are focused on flaked tuna in the pouch, and the company addresses consumer needs for flavors and convenience by meal kits with the flaked product, while leveraging a flexible supply chain.

Chicken of the Sea also has focused on flaked tuna in the pouch as well as other seafood offerings in the pouch.

Bumble Bee, based in San Diego, last November brought out tuna steaks, including flavored tuna steaks (not flaked tuna) in the convenient pouch. Bumble Bee also is moving to other protein sources, such as chicken and potted meats, with its recent acquisition of the Sweet Sue and Bryan shelf-stable meats businesses from Sara Lee. Both, interestingly, package their meats in cans and pouches.

The pouch concept and flavored pre-marinated items are positively affecting the tuna category. A negative factor was the July 2004 lawsuit against Star-Kist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea that claimed their packaged tuna exceeds the level of methylmercury needed to require exposure warnings. 

Nevertheless, Bumble Bee is putting high-quality albacore tuna steak in a convenient package. Consumers are seeking premium convenient foods that are available when they want them. Packaging provides an opportunity for consumers to provision these convenient foods in their pantry.


Our It!s Convenient and Crave It! processes integrate 30 or more conjoint studies to generate a database that can be used to understand the experience of foods. They tell us convenient seafood is about sauces, simply prepared fish, intense flavors, tasting freshly made and 100 percent natural. Craveable seafood is about tender meat, sauces, adding what you want, celebrating special occasions, only a hint of the ocean and premium quality.

The key attributes for convenient seafood are taste, appearance, aroma and price. The key attributes for cravable seafood are taste, aroma and mood. The convenient version must look good, the craveable version must be something the consumer is in the mood for.

Key trends in Seafood have been packaging/convenience, flavors and healthfulness.

Packaging/convenience: Seafood, starting with tuna, has used the pouch opportunistically to make this an easy-to-store, easy-to-open, easy-to-clean up food. This has enabled the manufacturers to raise the base price substantially and move the consumer from the mindset of “this is cheaper than cat food” to “this is a quality food.” The packaging also has reduced the amount of oil or water and enabled the fish to have a stronger “bite.”

In the preservation/retort step, the can had to be steam-pressure heated, which made the fish mushy. The pouch does not require the same level of heating, so the fish seems fresher with a flakier texture. This enables a fully cooked and seasoned tuna entree that is quick and easy to prepare — microwave for just 30 seconds, add a side dish and dinner is done.

Flavors: The addition of marinated flavors has enabled the category to provide choice to the consumer and reduce the fishy flavors even more.

Healthfulness: Fish has been known to be healthful for a long time, however, seemingly perennial mercury/PCB scares have resulted in some concerns. Bumble Bee’s focus on albacore tuna, the best type of tuna, has enabled the company to take advantage of the FDA’s comments that this fish is better than others for pregnant and nursing women. Tuna has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, docahexaenoic acid (DHA) and other naturally occurring healthy nutrients.

The experience

Bumble Bee Albacore Tuna Steak is available in three flavor varieties: Lemon & Pepper, Ginger & Soy and Mesquite Grilled for $2.99. For our taste-testers and panels, we used the Mesquite Grilled variety.

The package is a pouch with an easy-open tear across the top. Most consumers have moved up from the cans to the pouches as they are easier to open and the fish inside is fresher-looking with less liquid. But for this fish to move one more step to being considered a quick meal it must become a provisioned, stored food that is available anytime. The package enables storage in the cupboard at room temperature, so the fish is available at all times.

The back of the package gives three different preparation options (oven, stove top and microwave) along with the timing. This is a product for a convenience-mindset person.

The package opens easily. The tear allows the consumer to control the opening. Once it’s open, the aroma is apparent. However, this was not a tuna aroma (strong and fishy) but the aroma of the flavoring. The fishy smell is noticeably absent – this says quality.

The tuna is moderately flavored with a non-fishy flavor supporting the idea that this is fresh. The grilled flavor was smoky. The fillet was not oily or watery – rather firm like a hunk of meat. People on a high-protein diet who select this fish have something to wrap their teeth around. While not the texture or moistness of lightly seared ahi tuna from a great seafood grill, the firm texture was pleasant.

The ingredient statement is white tuna, marinade and black pepper. It is 4 oz. (a standard serving size), which is quite convenient when the consumer is focused on portion control. It has 150 calories per serving, with 10 calories from fat; protein is 35 g (if you are trying to get a lot of protein on your high protein diet, this is a great option); and sodium is only 370 mg, or 15 percent of the daily recommended amount. This is really healthy stuff.

Does the product deliver?

This brand stands for premium quality and for variety. The brand has bounced around a bit, moving from International Home Foods in 1997 (which was purchased by ConAgra in 2000) to Centre Partners and the Bumble Bee management team in 2003, now combining with Connors Bros. Income Fund to become the largest branded seafood company in North America in 2004.

This is premium-quality tuna that gives you variety. The new package gives the consumer the option of “fresh-like” fish that is storable on the shelf, easy to open and available when you want fish -- without stinking up your refrigerator.

How to make the idea bigger

While the product delivers on the promise, there are some opportunities to make this one even bigger.

The fish is great, and it makes meal preparation easier. In the prepackaged meal category, there are no fish options; just several varieties of meat. Cobranding or co-marketing it with a rice package (think Uncle Ben’s 90-second rice package – our article from June 2004) would make this just a little more filling, a complete meal that is fresh and homemade.

Eating the product right out of the pouch (an option if you are a high-protein eater or need protein after exercising) resulted in the flavor marinade being a little too strong. Not sure what to do about that – maybe we should try a different flavor.

This is a product that goes well with water (unlike a burger, which is ideal with soft drinks), but the smoky flavor is strong. Is there an opportunity to dial in flavor a little more? Maybe.

Rating: Both the product and package deliver on the promises.

Market Potential: Good. The package is easy to open and store. It allows consumers to move fish from frozen or fresh to an easily stored food that can be eaten when desired. And what’s inside is definitely high quality: a ready-to-heat, entrée-quality tuna steak that will become the centerpiece of a nice seafood meal in only minutes.

Hollis Ashman (hollis@theuandigroup.com) is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley (jackie@theuandigroup.com) is president of the Understanding and Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm. See www.theuandigroup.com.

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