analysis by Sarah Hardcastle - consumer education key to growth - brands rising to the demand for authenticity - instant gains adult appeal The infant noodle market just isn't attracting enough attention. While suppliers believe their baby has huge potential ­ as much, perhaps, as pasta ­ its qualities need to be appreciated by the consumer. And, to that end, a lot of marketing muscle is being flexed to raise consumer awareness and encourage trial. The total noodle market, comprising instant snack, savoury and plain varieties, is worth £116.4m, and growing at a healthy 12%. A mark of its immaturity is the fact that chilled fresh noodles are rarely sold on their own in pre-pack format. S & A Foods is one of the largest producers of fresh noodles, making vast quantities for own label oriental ready meals and Safeway's and Waitrose's noodle bars. Jeff Nicholas, head of brand marketing, says: "Consumers are not yet sufficiently familiar with fresh noodles to want to buy them separately and make up their own dishes. All the noodles we do in pre-packs are part of complete meals. But we expect at some point in the near future to be doing them on their own." Amoy Chinese category manager Shona Tough agrees: "There's a huge education job to be done to get over to consumers that noodles are very easy to cook, much easier than rice, and extremely versatile to use." Amoy has been very active in trying to raise awareness, running a programme of instore demonstrations and a summer TV advertising campaign for its Straight to Wok soft egg noodles. This is clearly what the market needs to make it move, for Tough says Straight to Wok is now the fastest growing brand, with a 32% y-o-y increase [AC Nielsen MAT May 19 2001]. Marketing manager Jonathan Gatward of Sharwood's, brand leader in traditional plain dried noodles, says the biggest driver in the market is the amount of support it is given. This year Sharwood's has upped its promotional spend for the whole brand to £5m, concentrating much of it around Chinese New Year in late January/early February. "This is the time when everybody puts a lot of support behind the market to encourage trial and it grows 20% over the period. It brings new consumers into the market, many of which remain, so it's fundamental in achieving big step changes in market growth," says Gatward. Blue Dragon agrees and is focusing on the Chinese festival and the Thai New Year in late spring to stimulate sales of its Thai range. Marketing director Claudia Bailey says sales of Thai rice noodles are taking off as Thai cuisine becomes increasingly popular. Blue Dragon has one of the biggest dry noodle ranges on the market encompassing varieties from China, Japan and Thailand. All three companies believe the key to unlocking the noodle market is to promote them as part of a complete meal solution. Amoy's Straight to Wok advertising and in-store demonstrations are geared to showing how quickly and simply a stir-fry meal can be created by combining its noodles, which don't require boiling, with the sauces and ambient prepared Chinese vegetables that are part of the range. Blue Dragon has found there's more to be gained by marketing its noodles alongside its expanding range of oriental sauces. "It results in increased frequency of purchase of all products," says Bailey. Sharwood's has taken a step in this direction with the launch in April of sauces in four popular oriental varieties for stirring into its noodles. Sharwood's Gatward says noodles should be merchandised as closely as possible to oriental sauces to encourage consumer trial. "It's particularly crucial for noodles because only one in 13 stir-fry meals features noodles, and household penetration is still well behind that of stir-fry sauces," he says. As the market evolves, so authenticity is starting to become increasingly important, as it is in other areas of ethnic food. Westmill Foods sales and marketing director Gavin Bowle says evidence for this lies in the dominance of brands over own label. "Though most multiples offer an own label alternative, brands hold over 85% of the market in volume, which shows how important authenticity is to the consumer. They want to cook at home exactly what they receive when they eat out at a Chinese or oriental restaurant." For retail, Westmill does the Lee Kum Kee brand of Chinese plain dry thin and thick noodles which Bowle says are made to traditional recipes using Chinese equipment. Packs feature celebrity chef Ken Hom's endorsement of authentic quality. The core range has been extended to include packs containing sachets of four of the brand's authentic sauces to create a quick snack meal. Flavoured and instant flavoured noodles are seeing a lot of new product development as sales in these sectors are buoyant. The biggest development has been Heinz' entry into instant noodles in January with 99% Fat Free Instant Noodles, a product aimed at young health conscious singles and families seeking a quick and nutritious snack or light meal. The noodle cake bars come with sachets in beef, chicken, curry and spicy Thai flavours. The company's £1m summer radio and press campaign has been promoting the brand's low fat content (claimed to be less than 1%), contrasting it with the 16% fat content of brand leader Batchelors SuperNoodles. Faced with this challenge, Batchelors has upped its support for SuperNoodles to £5.2m this year and branched out into stronger flavours ­ Thai Curry, Tex-Mex, Balti and Vindaloo. This follows the market trend for stronger, spicier flavours with more adult appeal, and for authentic products. The number of flavoured noodles with an authentic pedigree is increasing. Blue Dragon plans to introduce quick cook gourmet Szechuan noodles in beef, chicken and mushroom flavours later this year. Sco-Fro Foods, which supplies the Kimie, Wanda and China Sea brands, is launching Express Noodles, an oriental style lunchbox in which boiling water and flavouring are added to authentic Far Eastern noodles to create a quick meal. And Kohlico Trading has expanded its Ko-Lee brand with a curry flavour which it expects will become a bestseller to rival chicken. Chadha Oriental, part of WT Foods group, is offering the instant noodle range of Indo Mei, brand leader in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the Yeo's range from Singapore. MD John Brennan says: "The instant noodle market is now coming of age and is moving from being child-focused with basic Western style flavours to embrace the more sophisticated requirements of the 20 to 35-year-old consumer." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}