Making Frozen Hot: 5 Questions With Julie Lehman, Lean Cuisine

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Lean Cuisine Marketplace Korean beef broccoli

Lean Cuisine logo Lean Cuisine had to do something other than watch its venerable frozen diet-meal brand follow other freezer-case marques and other weight-loss brands down the chute. So about a year ago, the Nestlé-owned brand made a major pivot in its product line and positioning by changing from diet to delicious, and literally removed the word “diet” from its packaging and messaging.

And like a disciplined and conscientious consumer following a new regimen, Lean Cuisine has been getting results: Sales were up nearly 7 percent year-to-date through mid-May, per Nielsen data, and its share of the US frozen meals market had risen by 3 percent. Before last year’s relaunch, sales had dropped precipitously in 2014 and 2015, to about $800 million, Bloomberg estimated, while other estimates were even lower.

“Consumers have really responded to the repositioning,” Julie Lehman, marketing director for Lean Cuisine, told brandchannel. “A lot of them felt it was about time to see this from a brand they grew up with and enjoyed. Through our relaunch, they have rediscovered the brand and put it back into their lives.”

Lean Cuisine

Lean Cuisine’s brand overhaul included new frozen entree options and a new categorization, merchandising and marketing scheme that segmented its offerings into five lines:

• “Market Place” meals that promise to take eaters on a “culinary adventure” and include options such as mushroom mezzaluna ravioli
• “Craveables” that include foods such as pizzas and garlic chicken spring rolls
• “Comfort” entrees, meals such as steak portabella and meatloaf with mashed potatoes
• “Favorites” including classic frozen meals such as spaghetti and lasagna
• Mornings breakfast line includes Veggie Scramble and protein-filled English muffins.

The rebrand not only introduced new advertising, packaging and frozen entrée options—it needed to evolve perception from its diet brand heritage and become a modern health and lifestyle brand. So its packaging was redesigned to emphasize entree attributes that are more on-trend and relevant to consumers today, particularly millennials, than mere calorie-counting, including the fact that its packaged meals are organic, gluten-free and non-GMO.

It also increased its marketing spend, including investing in a “Weigh This” campaign in which women articulated or “weighed” their personal accomplishments on a scale, instead of their bodies. The centerpiece of the campaign was the emotionally-charged spot above, featuring real women “weighing” their accomplishments – becoming a parent, making Dean’s List as a single mother, traveling the world – and not about weighing their bodies.

The video above was seeded on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and utilized paid media, PR and influencer marketing to amplify Lean Cuisine’s message and spread the word. According to the brand’s digital agency, 360i, the campaign was “an instant and viral success, changing perception around Lean Cuisine’s brand image and building affinity among consumers. Within the first week of launch, our efforts earned us the #9 spot in the Ad Age Viral Video chart and a 6.5 million reach. The video was well received, and we saw a 33 percent increase in positive brand perception.”

For the second phase of the campaign this past January, an out of home activation in New York saw artist Annica Lydenberg paint hundreds of bathroom scales in Grand Central Station to celebrate women’s accomplishments and catch the attention of busy commuters.

The “Feed Your Phenomenal” spot below, featuring a labor and delivery nurse in Boston who ends her busy night shift by tucking into a meal of Lean Cuisine mac-and-cheese, struck such a chord that it’s still running.

brandchannel spoke with Lehman for more insights on how to make a frozen food icon hot.

bc: Looking back over the past year, what has the brand done right to begin a turnaround and return to a path of growth?

Julie Lehman: The products and benefits we’ve gone after, focusing on gluten-free, organic, non-GMO and high protein, resonated with consumers. They’re looking for those benefits. But also the culinary approach we brought to the benefits has been successful, delivering recipes that are very delicious to our customers, such as Vermont macaroni and cheese.

Also in packaging, we’ve segmented the sub-lines. “Market Place” is in a black box, for example. We’ve gotten a ton of consumer feedback on how impactful that is on the shelves, and it has brought people back to the category.

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bc: Is “Market Place” premium-priced to the other three sub-lines?

Lehman: No, but “Favorites” is priced lower than the other three. Overall the price point is about $3, relatively the same level we’ve always had. The category itself is a highly [price-] promoted one.

bc: What did you learn from the “Weigh This” campaign?

Lehman: It was part of our relaunch to move away from the diet space, and it was really effective. We learned a lot. We began to share more about the stories of our food and how we come up with recipes and how we develop our food — all part of our growth and our journey in the world.

bc: Are consumers re-evaluating frozen versus fresh in terms of better-for-you attributes? 

Lehman: Frozen plays a critical role in consumers’ lives, and it has been maligned by the unprocessed movement. The truth is that frozen is freshness; we don’t have preservatives. And it feeds a very particular role of providing convenience. It provides value and good taste. Consumers are appreciating that more — that they can get a delicious meal for $3.

bc: Are you still constrained by the Lean Cuisine name, which to most consumers likely connotes less fat and calories, when you’ve shifted the brand away from diet?

Lehman: We try to live within the [regulatory constraints around using the word “lean” in the name] and provide the best foods possible given the requirements. (The name) “Lean Cuisine” has a tremendous amount of equity with the consumer, and it would be hard to walk away from that. But consumers don’t know we’re constrained (in formulation). The hardest challenge for us is that sometimes we’d like to include a little more in our foods but we’re limited by the amount of fat we can include.


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