BOSTON — "There's a fine line between an icon and an antique" is a rallying cry of Sean M. Connolly, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Conagra Brands, Inc., the maker of Chef Boyardee and Reddi-wip.
"I often say to our team ... our job as brand managers is to make sure that our iconic brands remain iconic and don't become antiques," Mr. Connolly said during a Sept. 4 presentation at the Barclays Global Consumer Staples Conference in Boston. "And the good news is when you bring modern attributes into legacy iconic brands ... the velocities you will achieve in market are far beyond the velocities that you will see in these boutique brands, the kind of brands you see all over the place at (Natural Products) Expo West.
"And that's because for the consumer when they can find modern attributes in a brand that they know and they recognize and they have good memories of, it's a much safer bet of the $4 or $5 they're going to spend than buying a brand they've never heard of before that has very interesting modern attributes, and it shows up very clearly in the data, and it's one of the reasons why we believe if we continue to innovate across our portfolio with modern attributes... we will deliver velocities that retailers cannot ignore, and that creates a distribution opportunity for us."
Two examples of legacy brands that have been updated with on-trend attributes recently include Reddi-wip and Healthy Choice. This past June, Conagra added two plant-based varieties of Reddi-wip topping. The products, which are meant to appeal to consumers avoiding dairy, feature almond and coconut as ingredients.
Under the Healthy Choice brand, Conagra recently introduced Power Bowls for the breakfast occasion. The new items feature egg white and ingredients such as steel cut oats, farro, buckwheat, quinoa and others.
"These are all attributes of growing brands, and we will design those into our products, whether it's snacking or whether it's frozen or whether it's in condiments and enhancers."
Mr. Connolly added the company is taking a different approach to its snacking business.
"The way I would want you all to think about it is, historically, we managed snacks the same way we managed a center-of-the-store grocery ingredient product, and you can't manage snacks the way you manage Ro-tel or Hunt's tomatoes," he said. "It's a different kind of business. Snacking is very dynamic. It's very high-paced. Consumer tastes are changing constantly. So, the importance of external focus and then translating that external focus into a relentless pipeline of innovation is critically important."
He described a snacking team that is "extremely agile, not afraid to take risks and then can translate their insights into innovation, and (if) it works, they double down."
He added, "If it doesn't work, we move on to the next thing. That's how you manage a snacking business."
With brands including Slim Jim, David Seeds and Orville Redenbacher's, Conagra Brands' snacking portfolio spans meat snacks, seeds, popcorn and sweet treats.
"Those four domains are growing faster than the balance of the snacking category, and in each of those four spaces, we have either the No. 1 brand or the No. 1 fastest-growing brand," Mr. Connolly said.
Recent innovation has focused on frozen brands such as Healthy Choice, Marie Callender's and Banquet.
"We are in the very, very early innings of a complete overhaul in the frozen space," Mr. Connolly said. "We believe frozen food is literally the optimal solution for today's consumer, and the reason for that is because frozen food is basically fresh food that is flash-frozen so that it's ready when you are. Unlike some of the refrigerated foods that you have in your refrigerator such that if your plans change, they immediately start to spoil."
The planned acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, Inc. will expand Conagra Brands' footprint in frozen with the addition of Birds Eye, Gardein, Udi's and Glutino. Pinnacle Foods' businesses and capabilities are expected to create new innovation opportunities for Conagra Brands.
"Birds Eye gives us access to a health and wellness space with a vegetable platform that we don't have access to today," Mr. Connolly said. "It's an absolutely terrific business. It's been a juggernaut, and it's incremental to what we do. And by the way, we think it opens up opportunities for us to apply some of our brands in that space perhaps establishing a premium or super-premium tier down the road.
"If you look at a business like Gardein, that's another void in our current portfolio, which is really in sync with this whole movement toward vegetarian and vegan diets, or even if you're not a vegetarian and a vegan, you're moving more toward things like meatless Mondays and less meat and protein in your diet. Gardein is a phenomenal business that is growing at a phenomenal clip that is totally incremental to what we do.
"If you look at the trend in gluten-free, the thing continues. So, Udi's, Glutino, these are assets that we think are incremental to what we do.
"And then when you look at the capabilities, Pinnacle has a tremendous capability in multi-serve packaging within the frozen space. We have a tremendous capability with single-serve packaging. So we think we can do some things in the world of single-serve with our assets and some things in the world of multi-serve with their assets. So, terrific complementary business in frozen."