Brands are set to bring greater competition and choice into the chilled cooking sauce category as they enviously eye the success of own labels.

Over the past year, smaller brands with cottage industry credentials have made forays into the market with innovative premium chilled lines.

Already, some power brands have taken the plunge, including Sharwood's, WeightWatchers and Sacla'.

"Historically, chilled sauces have been the territory of own label, with little differentiation or desire for brands," says Remmelt Jongkind, marketing director for Italian sauce brand Napolina. "But the level of ongoing multibuy promotional activity has affected value growth and there's an emerging opportunity for brands to add value back into the chiller."

Napolina has chosen to focus its efforts on ambient over chilled because there is a "huge amount of market share to win by bringing innovation and quality to the ambient fixture".

The company expects sales of chilled sauces to remain in second place to ambient for the foreseeable future.

Many, however, believe there are opportunities for brands with a strong reputation in ambient to move over into the chilled category with innovative, ethnic and premium products.

Brands prepared to focus on high-quality ingredients, and look beyond convenience to a more indulgent positioning, could achieve strong growth.

"Our research has identified a group of consumers who exclusively buy chilled as they perceive it to be of a higher quality than ambient," says Helen Doxon, marketing innovations manager at Sharwood's.

"These are usually people who like eating out and enjoy trying new flavours."

Sharwood's is aware of the inevitable future influx of other big brands into chilled cooking sauces, but hopes to maintain its lead in the Asian category.

Thai Green, for example, is now one of its most popular chilled sauces, it says.

The premium, restaurant-quality image associated with chilled sauces compared with ambient will help boost sales over the next year, says Sue Knight, general manager for pickles and sauces at Premier Foods.

"Consumers are looking for new twists to their mainstream favourites; sun-dried vegetables is an emerging trend in restaurants that is beginning to make the leap into sauces," she adds.

Representing the healthy trend is the WeightWatchers range of chilled sauces, produced by Greencore Chilled Sauces & Soups.

The three-strong range was initially launched into Asda in July 2006, and went into wider distribution with a launch in Sainsbury's in January this year.

While quality, provenance and taste are of the utmost importance in chilled cooking sauces, the pack must work hard to attract attention on the shelf.

"New Covent Garden struggled here," says Gareth Pugh, consultant for Dragon Brands.

"There was not quite the critical mass of a category when they first tried. Their pack form, an adaptation of their iconic soup carton, led to their offer looking quite small and a little lost on the shelves."

New Covent Garden pulled out of the chilled pasta sauces sector after two years in November 2006 to concentrate on its portfolio of ready-to-eat products. n