Frozen food companies have been bemoaning how the category has been in the doldrums for the past couple of years, but it is only recently that they have started to put their money where their mouths are.
Unilever, in particular, has taken upon itself to raise the profile of the category - partly because, as the owner of the largest frozen brand Birds Eye, it has a lot to lose or gain from frozen's performance, but also because it recognised that something needed to be done to guarantee the long-term future of the category.
"We are grabbing frozen by the scruff of the neck," says John Farrell, Birds Eye category director. "It is in our interest to change consumer perceptions about the category."
The £21m the company is investing in its TV, press and poster advertising campaign is only the tip of the iceberg, however, and new product launches also attempt to move the category away from being seen as the preserve of staple breaded and battered products such as chicken nuggets and fish fingers.
This month sees the launch of Mediterraneo from Birds Eye, a four-strong range of meals and accompaniments that takes its inspiration from the Mediterranean diet and taps into the growing demand for roasted vegetables. Products include Catalan fish with sun-ripened tomatoes and Sicilian fish with slow-roasted vegetables, as well as a range of roasted vegetables. There is not a piece of breaded or battered fish in sight.
Needless to say, other companies are riding the wave of awareness generated by Unilever's campaign. Findus, for example, has launched a Gourmet Range of frozen fish products and McCain has also embarked on a campaign highlighting the simplicity of its products.
So, is Unilever concerned that it is spending money on driving awareness that other companies in the sector will also benefit from? Farrell, for one, says no. "If other companies want to ride on our coat tails then that's fair enough," he says. "We kind of expected that to happen."
He is also confident that many consumers will associate the campaign with Birds Eye and not the entire category. "We believe the ads are executed in a way that draws people to the brand. It is creating a lot of interest in Birds Eye."
Simon Eyles, communications manager at McCain, adds that rather than building on the work Unilever has done, its forthcoming TV ads, which are breaking in September, will take an alternative approach.
"There is no doubt that people's interest is rising in the frozen foods arena," he says. "But there are a lot of serious adverts out there at the moment. Ours will be more fun and interesting." n