Value booms as commodity prices go potty

This was the year Pot Noodle got its mojo back, while soaring global commodity prices sent rice and pasta category values rocketing.

The demise of Pot Noodle, it seems, has been exaggerated. Last year it did not look good for the students' favourite, with sales down 4.4% and pressure from new kids on the block Heinz Big Eat and Princes Quick Eat.

However, the daddy of potted snacks has fought back, and brand owner Unilever should be delighted with a 4% jump in sales this year to £71.8m.

According to Unilever, the secret of Pot Noodle's success this year was getting back to basics. In September the company launched a £1.5m marketing campaign aimed at the brand's core fans: "young lads who eat McDonald's and toast".

The ads focused on Pot Noodle's attributes of convenience and taste rather than previous campaigns that tried to promote the brand's health credentials. Over the previous two years Unilever had spent £20m focusing on allaying consumer health fears, including trying to recover from the damage caused to the brand as a result of the 2005 Sudan 1 contamination. It also conducted a major reformulation, reducing salt content by 50%.

All this, however, had done little for sales, prompting the latest campaign, which also included a tongue-in-cheek giveaway - a spinning fork that removes the need for consumers to stir their noodles themselves.

The fork was simply a bit of fun and a deliberately "stupid invention" that core consumers would find amusing, said Pot Noodle marketing manager Cheryl Cavaday.Unilever also funded a tongue-in-check show at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival called Pot Noodle The Musical.

But the young pretenders to Pot Noodle's throne also had a storming year. Heinz Big Eat, which launched in April 2007, has more than doubled its sales this year. A £2.8m brand last year, Big Eat sales were up 101.9% to £5.7m this year.

Symington's Mug Shot, meanwhile, was up 47.1% to £3.5m.

And it has been a good year for the hot instant snacks market all round, with total sales up 8% to £146m. Dominated by brands, own-label makes up £12.6m of sales, although this was also up 7.3% on the previous year.

Batchelors also enjoyed an even more impressive uplift in sales of its Super Noodles. Between them, Super Noodles and Super Noodles To Go had a 19% sales increase to £40.1m.

When it comes to pasta and rice, the story of the year was rising commodity prices as poor harvests put pressure on demand.

The global shortages resulted in huge value growth for the sector. Total category value for pasta rose by 46.2% this year from £131.7m to £192.5m.

The higher retail prices did not put off shoppers, for whom pasta and rice are now as much an everyday essential as a loaf of bread, according to Helen Waters, product manager for grocery at Spar wholesaler Capper & Co.

"Everyone is cooking from scratch a lot more and, even with the higher prices, this is cheaper than ready meals," she says. "Our pasta sales are up 55% this year."

In April Waitrose completely ran out of own-label pasta as global stocks of durum wheat ran perilously low. The good news for brands was that over a 10-week period Waitrose had to source extra stock from its branded suppliers.

While 71.6% of the category is own label, almost all the leading brands made good progress this year. Sales of brand leader Napolina soared by 35.6%, while last year's third-placed brand De Cecco overtook Nestlé's Buitoni to claim second place. De Cecco was the fastest-growing brand this year, up 40% from £4.9m to £8.1m. Buitoni also performed well, with sales up 13.6% to £5.9m. The only branded supplier to struggle this year was Dolmio: sales of the Mars-owned brand were down 15.7% from £3.8m to £3.2m.

The rice category also underwent strong growth this year, with value sales up 16.9% to £343.7m. Uncle Ben's, which accounts for 34.9% of the total category by value, was up 7.7% to £120.1m.

Second-placed Tilda grew 15% to £41.2m helped by the August launch of four new flavours in its steamed basmati range following consumer feedback that the category lacked variety. The new lines included two brown rice recipes - butternut squash and mushroom & white wine - and two white rice variants - coconut & lime leaf and oriental stir fry. Since its launch in May last year the steamed range has grown to become an £11m brand, with the company claiming it has struck a chord with consumers looking for products that are convenient and healthy.

But the star performer, albeit coming from a smaller base, was Veetee. The manufacturer, which has revealed plans to move into pasta next year, more than tripled its sales from £2.3m to £7m thanks to the runaway success of its microwaveable Dine In rice range.

Top Launch - Butternut Sqaush Steamed Basmati Rise (Tilda) 
Tilda has listened to consumer demand. Its steamed basmati range was brought out to add excitement to the category. The butternut squash variant does the trick perfectly, and taps into just about every consumer trend.

The microwaveable range is convenient. The brown basmati rice is healthy, while butternut squash appeals to those with a taste for so-called 'superfoods'.

View The Grocer's definitive Top Products 2008 survey