The Grocer's brainstorming session on giving frozen food more clout generated exciting ideas. Siân Harrington reports

Tacky, passé and cheap. No, this is not a description of the contestants in Celebrity Big Brother but the words of one consumer when asked to sum up frozen food. Indeed, if supermarket categories were dealt with in the same way as contestants in the Big Brother house, it is clear which would be evicted first.
Frozen food was the only category to see a decline in all six constituents in The Grocer's annual Top Products survey of the main 24 grocery categories last year. Frozen ready meals were worst hit, down 12.9% in value [ACNielsen 52 w/e October 1, 2005]. Even frozen food stalwarts Unilever and Heinz are exiting, in the wake of the sale of the European operations of Findus to Capvest.
Despite the current health craze and giants such as Birds Eye spending millions communicating the message that freezing is the most natural way to preserve foods, consumers have been seduced by the chiller cabinet. It will take more than global warming to melt their frosty attitude.
So will the freezer cabinet go the way of other traditional food preservation ideas such as salting?
With a third of all sales made on promotion last year, volume is at least being maintained. But, as David Stokes, Nisafreeze senior trading controller, said in December, the sector is likely to stay in a discounting spiral as long as suppliers fund the multiples' downward pricing strategy.
He added: "Suppliers are not making enough out of their base products to fund NPD and there has been a dearth of new and innovative products."
Yet the category has some inherent strengths. Some 96% of households have a freezer. It is a more natural way of preserving food - frozen products do not need preservatives and additives. And it can play to today's convenience lifestyle: you can always have some frozen on standby for when friends drop round or you were not expecting to eat in.
After all, unless you want a joint of beef, it doesn't take that much longer to defrost than cooking a chilled meal - especially if you use the microwave.
The Grocer certainly does not believe it is all doom and gloom. So we brought a group of like-minded experts together to develop three fantasy products to help revive the category. But from the start it was clear that there were major issues of perception to overcome. When asked to describe frozen food, responses included basics, family, value, bulk and boxes. Meanwhile chilled was seen as fresh, exotic, couscous, basil and forest mushrooms.
On the following pages you can read about the ideas that came out of one afternoon's brainstorming.
We were looking for products that would achieve the following:
Incremental volume - not stealing from existing higher-margin products, which retailers would not countenance
Boost shopper traffic in frozen aisles
Play to the strengths of the format
Boost margin and added value
Over the coming three months, we will be enlisting the help of you, our readers, to choose the best idea. On the back of this, branding and communications agency DNX will then create a marketing campaign for the winning idea. In June we will present the idea to buyers for their verdict.

Matthew Wilson
Lea Pateman
Edward Perry
Nigel White
Clare Monk

Drew Nicholson
Siân Harrington
The tranquil surroundings of The Sanctuary provide the perfect backdrop - and counterpoint - to the passionate discussions between our panel members on how to revive the frozen food sector. As well as being one of Surrey's newest conference venues, it is a world centre for spiritual healing and meditation. And there is no doubt that the frozen food category needs some healing.Our two consumers, Lea Pateman and Clare Monk, are of one mind about the major perception issues frozen food has to overcome. "Fatty potato-based junk food in too-colourful packs," is how Pateman describes what she sees in the freezer cabinet. "There is no visible product."As a full-time housewife with four children, Pateman recognises that an interest in health and ability to magic food out of nowhere for the dozens of kids appearing on her doorstep do not necessarily go hand in hand. As such, she is a perfect target consumer for frozen food. Yet the idea of buying leaves her cold. "In time-saving you don't want to compromise the feeding of the family. Even if you are restricted on income, you want to do the best for the kids," she says.Not just this is to blame. "I am afraid to go into my freezer," she adds. "When I open it everything seems to attack me. I have to spend ages organising the freezer and then finding stuff."The same can be said of the cabinets in store. As well as the fact that it is cold to shop, and as Pateman points out you therefore can never find staff to help you, it is sea of bright boxes shouting 'cheap price' and 'promotion', with little evidence of provenance, quality and excitement. "The good products such as Birds Eye steamed veg are mixed in with the loud packaging and are difficult to see," she says. However, while Pateman prefers to scratch-cook, she can see the appeal of the chiller area. "Chilled ready meals are sexy. They are located just beyond the fruit and veg and benefit from this. I don't buy chilled ready meals, as I cook from scratch, but I want to buy them when I see them."So the starting points for the panel were whether you could create frozen foods, dominated as they are by own label, that can differentiate themselves from the high margin chilled area; that can challenge consumers' perceptions of the freezer; and that generate more substantial margins. The panel's answer is a resounding yes but, as NPD expert Nigel White says, lines must provide something only frozen can do. Matthew Wilson, Dr Oetker head of marketing, agrees. "If you shop chilled first, there is no need to go to the freezers. It must be something that drives shoppers to freezers in the first place."Drew Nicholson, joint MD of brand and communications agency DNX and chair for the day, adds: "It needs to be brave but mainstream."So what are the most obvious gaps? Well, as Wilson points out: "The food trends of today, such as organic, provenance and free trade, are not replicated in frozen." So a number of ideas are based around these trends. The first is a range of premium dishes going beyond the gastropub idea. These would be based around exotic vegetables and feature cuisines from areas such as Vietnam and Mauritius. Another idea is a range of diet foods, similar to the Sainsbury's Free From ambient range. Many people appear to be looking for allergy-free products - whether through necessity or desire, as Ed Perry, founder of independent frozen food retailer Cook, says: "Five years ago people on a gluten-free diet needed to be. Now there is a weird snobbery that means people are proud about having a food allergy even if they don't." However, such a range would appeal to celeriacs, vegans or people just wanting to eat healthily. Then there is a dinner party range comprising upmarket and premium dishes you could serve to posh neighbours. And finally a celebrity chef-endorsed range and what Nicholson called "yuppie food", dishes for one to tap into the growing singleton market. The panel agrees all these have legs in theory, but there are some practical barriers. Perry highlights the biggest. "I can't see how supermarkets could peddle the gastropub/dinner party ranges because they are selling chilled so hard and this is giving them high margins. What would the commercial imperative be?"White says that any new idea would have to play to frozen's inherent strengths. "It is no use waffling on about health - that has been tried and has not worked. As for free-from, this is generally free from customers. It has no food values."There is, though, a consensus, that some type of celebrity endorsement would work. "We need a spark to kickstart the category," says Wilson.Both Pateman and Monk believe there is a big market for interesting and healthy food for children. As Nicholson says, people are currently using the freezer section for kids so maybe there is room for a range of posh nosh for children. Another idea is a pick'n'mix for veg. This would add some entertainment and drive traffic. A number of supermarkets have introduced pick'n'mix cheeses while some have tested individual ice creams. Other ideas include a range of superfoods and a party range similar to M&S's chilled offer. Frozen sauces are seen as particularly useful, especially the idea of roux sauces and stocks you could just heat up. Another hit with the consumers is stewpots that could be taken from freezer to oven to table. Then there are ideas such as frozen petfood, health and beauty lines and even ice sculptures for parties. After hours of debate, the panel shortlists seven ideas:Quality adult frozen ready meals - meal solutions free from preservatives and driving adults to a category that currently appeals more to kidsFlavoured ice cubes - everything from lemon flavoured cubes to pop into your gin & tonic and Playboy-branded cubes for a fun party to white wine available in an ice cubeFrozen beauty products such as detox face packs for hangovers, and frozen shower gels. This would be a high margin range enabling consumers to re-evaluate the categorySuper foods - taking the 18 super foods that provide the essential blocks of a healthy diet and building a brand with grouping at the heart of itFrozen fruit for smoothies - the smoothie machine was a key purchase last year yet it often stands gathering dust on a shelf. Individual packs ready to throw into a machine, extended with recipe ideas and kitsPick'n'mix for vegetablesCooking by numbers - balanced meals helping consumers who are no longer savvy about food preparation and with little time to cook. A main meal plus veg packaged together in portions of one, two or four with a clear nutritional balance and in the right quantities No more too much or too little, but pre-selected portions. From this shortlist the panel selected three ideas that will be put to the readers of The Grocer. These will be revealed in the issue of April 15.
head of Marketing Dr OetkerWilson has been at Dr Oetker since November 2004 and previously worked for Nestlé Ice Cream and Richmond, so has spent six years working in the frozen foods sector.
ConsumerPateman is a full-time mother of four children. She has, in her free moments, been developing a kids' cartoon series about healthy eating, with interest from the BBC and Jamie Oliver.
Managingdirector, Cook Perry founded deli-style frozen food retailer Cook. The company won The Grocer's independent retail chain of the year last year, thanks to its reinvention of frozen food.
Food branding and NPD expertWhite has plenty of experience in the frozen sector as he formerly worked in marketing and sales at Northern Foods as well as in marketing roles at Quorn, Sun Valley and Holland's Pies.
ConsumerMonk is a full- time mum with two children. Before that, she had a career as a marketing agency account director and worked on companies such as Ferrero and Tic Tac.
Joint managing director, DNXNicholson's marketing career kicked off at Tesco. He switched to the agency side at Bates and then set up marketing consultancy DNA, which became DNX in 2000.
Deputy editorThe GrocerHarrington has been in her current role for four years and has written about the retail market for 12 years, including five years when she focused on the marketing sector.