analysis by Sarah Hardcastle - Growth is driven by ethnic foods - Basmati proves rising star - Ethnic brands move mainstream - Convenience is just swell - Specialities bursting with ideas Not many categories owe their success to the soaring popularity of another area of the food market. Rice does, however, and the strength of its sales are almost entirely due to the massive boom in Indian, Chinese, Thai and other ethnic dishes. Consumption of ethnic food has grown so dramatically in the last few years that one in four people now eat curry once a week and half a million eat Indian food every day [Mintel Indian Foods Market Intelligence April 2001]. The impact on the rice market has been profound, creating a growing demand for more authentic products as well as speciality rices for specific recipe dishes. A further boost to sales has been the development of microwaveable rice products which overcome the difficulties of conventional rice cooking and meet consumers' need for convenience. Rice is a tricky market to evaluate because a substantial chunk of it lies with independent ethnic food retailers whose sales data isn't collected and analysed. As a result, the statistics available only reflect a portion of the market's true size and performance. In mainstream grocery, the growth pattern over the last two years has been steady and consistent, if not exactly spectacular. TN Sofres values the total market, comprising chilled, dry and frozen, at £189.8m, with growth at 5.6%, while Information Resources puts rice at more than £195m, with 3.6% yr-on-yr growth (52 w/e 20 May 01). Own label dominates (62% value/77% volume ­ Information Resources). The fact it doesn't advertise and promote in the way that brands do is the main reason why growth doesn't soar into double digits. Tilda is the leading brand, although Veetee claims to be the biggest volume supplier through a combination of brand and own label. American long grain still has the lion's share of the market ­ but only just. Its 48% share is gradually being eroded by basmati, the rising star, which has seen sales soar nearly 16% over the last year, pushing its share to 37% in value. In the multiples, basmati sales have almost caught up with long grain. Basmati's spectacular rise is due to the popularity of Indian food. "In the last five years Indian food has grown dramatically. Basmati has grown with it because people have become a great deal more knowledgeable about rice and want the correct variety with each cuisine," says Veetee marketing director Lorena Golfetto. In the next two years she predicts basmati will overtake long grain as the generic rice type. "Around 36% of households eat basmati, so there's lots of potential for growth. For retailers, basmati's performance is good news because it has a higher retail value than long grain," she adds. Basmati's popularity has led to a proliferation of ethnic brands, a number of which are now targeting the mainstream market, and an increase in marketing activity to gain share. Tilda is the power brand', straddling both the mainstream and ethnic markets, with 22% brand share. This summer it is running a poster campaign for its Pure Basmati brand. "Rice advertising is relatively low profile, so the aim of this campaign is to raise awareness of basmati and boost sales still further," says brand manager Tracy Roberts. Veetee, the other big player, has made packaging a priority to increase shelf appeal and ease of handling. Golfetto says the introduction of a 5kg plastic jar has been particularly successful, significantly increasing sales. It is spending £1m this year on a consumer marketing programme to push basmati and new product launches planned for the autumn. With the multiples now targetting local ethnic communities with ethnic food fixtures, the door has opened to a wider range of basmati brands. In this market, as retailers have found, brand loyalty is extremely strong as ethnic communities prefer to buy traditional products from their own countries. Westmill Foods, for example, has two basmati brands ­ Guru for the Indian community and Watan for the Pakistani sector ­ as do the other leading suppliers. One result of the wider listing of ethnic basmati brands is an increase in mainstream sales of these products. "Not only are they becoming more accessible to mainstream consumers," says Westmill's head of marketing Gulum Uddin, "but consumers are turning to them because they prefer authentic brands." Map Trading is ideally positioned to reap the benefits of this trend. "Our White Pearl basmati is now established as the number one Pakistani brand in the Asian community, so retailers who want to pull in Asian consumers should be stocking it," says marketing manager Gurmail Singh Lal. "At the same time it also meets mainstream demand for authentic brands." In a profile raising exercise, the company has just launched an imaginative on-pack promotion offering consumers the chance to win genuine cultured pearl jewellery sets. A problem that besets the whole sector is the influx of cheap, adulterated basmati, which is offered as "pure basmati", but is made from non-recognised varieties or damaged grain. This is driving down prices and devaluing consumers' perception of basmati. This long-standing issue is expected to be resolved shortly when independent guidelines to identify true basmati from India and Pakistan are agreed by the UK government and international authorities. Other areas of the rice market doing well are Thai fragrant which has seen a 6% value/8% volume increase over the year due to the rising popularity of Thai food, and speciality rices. Italian risotto has experienced phenomenal growth of 29% value/30% volume, a big factor in this performance being the extensive coverage given to risotto recipes in consumer magazines. Brand leader Riso Gallo has seen even better growth of 60% yr-on-yr, its performance driven by a flavoured and easy to cook range that takes the complexity out of risotto preparation. The market's other big story is the runaway success of the new generation of ambient, microwaveable pre-cooked rice products, a sector that's seen a 171% uplift in the last year, albeit from a tiny base. Uncle Ben's Express pouches in long grain, pilau and Chinese varieties account for most of this (150% yr-on-yr growth). "With a two minute cooking time, they offer convenience with variety, and so are right in tune with modern lifestyles," says Michael Jenkins, Pedigree Masterfoods head of external affairs. An egg fried rice variant is now being introduced. With the way paved by Uncle Ben's, the sector is seeing a rush of innovations. The most notable is Tilda's Rizazz, a four-strong premium range based on basmati in 250g microwaveable pouches launched in May. The collection includes Pure Basmati and Pilau Basmati (with onion and cumin), designed as meal accompaniments, plus Savoury Mushroom and Mediterranean Tomato, for eating on their own as a snack or light lunch. "By combining gourmet ingredients with convenience, we want to rejuvenate the rice category, says Tilda's Roberts. "Sales have exceeded our targets and we now have listings in most of the major multiples." An autumn TV advertising campaign is planned. With the current rate of growth, Roberts predicts the £7m category will be worth £25m in a few years. Own label's entry is expected shortly, while other recent brand developments include Discovery Foods' Mexican and cajun long grain based recipes. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}