Originally published by Nielsen Innovation Insights

The early 2010s marked the beginning of the “fresh Renaissance” for American consumers. Veggies were suddenly in vogue; “fresh, never frozen” claims on meat packaging became veritable consumer magnets; and convenient “grab and go” salads were godsends for health-conscious shoppers on busy days. To put it another way, the frozen aisle was beginning to look a little deserted.

From 2013 to 2015, unit sales in the frozen entrée category declined 7%. As a major player in the category, Lean Cuisine suffered a significant blow. “The brand had been declining for a few years; we’d lost hundreds of millions of dollars and a significant chunk of market share. Consumers thought about frozen food as very processed—not very healthy or tasty compared to fresher options. Additionally, Lean Cuisine was known as a ‘diet’ brand, an association which had fallen out of favor with consumers,” explained Daniel Jhung, Vice President of Marketing at Nestlé USA.

“We knew that if we wanted to make a statement, packaging would be the most effective medium.”

– Daniel Jhung, Vice President of Marketing at Nestlé USA

In an attempt to pivot away from this ‘diet’ association, the brand had attempted two relaunches in previous years, but the execution was too subtle to make a lasting impression on consumers. “We knew that if we wanted to make a real statement, packaging would be the most effective medium. We could convey the new positioning through TV, but not everyone sees a TV spot, especially in this day of media fragmentation. Everyone sees the packaging though,” said Jhung.

“The other reality is that, if your brand has lost hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re not going to have the same marketing budget that you did four or five years before. My budget was about half of what it used to be so, in my mind, packaging was probably the number one touchpoint over TV, digital, and everything else we were doing,” he continued.

The brand was in a free-fall, and the team had significantly fewer resources with which to turn things around, but there was a silver lining: “Because of the state of the business, we were able to really tear down the brand completely and build it back up again, one piece at a time. Everything was very thoughtfully researched and executed—I don’t see that with every redesign,” said Debbie Bester, design manager at Nestlé, who led the project.

From a pool of eight design agencies, the brand team selected Pearlfisher as its partner. “Prior to bringing us in, Lean Cuisine had done a lot of testing about how consumers perceived the brand—it’s a very large, complex portfolio, the architecture didn’t make any sense, and consumers just didn’t know what Lean Cuisine stood for anymore,” recalled Hamish Campbell, creative director at Pearlfisher’s New York office. “The first thing we did was to put in place a strong strategic foundation for the brand. We did an intensive immersion over a couple of days, working with Nestlé’s internal chefs and our own Futures team to understand the types of food and where food trends are going. We quickly realized that not only did we need to change people’s perceptions of the brand, we needed to change their perceptions of the entire category,” he continued.

In these immersive sessions, the concept of “food moods” emerged as one way to segment the portfolio and create meaning for consumers. The team eventually defined four moods, planning to provide each one of them with a distinct visual identity. They were:

  • Marketplace: modern, restaurant-quality recipes made with trendy ingredients
  • Comfort: familiar, go-to meals that deliver savory flavors and desirable benefits
  • Favorites: classic and simple dishes
  • Craveables: delicious bar-food made to satisfy a craving without overindulging

“At the time, Lean Cuisine packaging had a white background with orange typography, and everything was very plug-and-play—there was no difference between the varieties and no relation to culture and how we live life. The new visual architecture made consumers feel that Lean Cuisine understood their world. ‘They know that I’m rushing to pick up the kids from football practice or violin lessons. They know I need to get food on the table, and they’re making my life easier for me,’” explained Campbell.

Ultimately, Pearlfisher presented three different design routes to the brand team based on the “food mood” segmentation, ranging from relatively safe to bold. Consumer testing affirmed the team’s hunch: the design representing the biggest, most dramatic departure from the category—and the one that represented the greatest pivot away from “diet” food—was the clear winner.

“Often brands have an equity—a color or some other visual element—that they feel is a sacred cow. Lean Cuisine had used a white box for more than 30 years with orange as a secondary color. Many brands would think you can’t walk away from that. In the case of Lean Cuisine, it was a hard pill for some stakeholders to swallow,” recalled Jhung.

Nevertheless, Pearlfisher succeeded in convincing the brand team that, while the white box was an equity, it had become a negative one; as a frozen brand, Lean Cuisine needed to warm up its packaging.

“If you just completely throw out all your equities, yes, you’re going to have a dramatic failure. However, identifying and building on your foundation can give you more freedom in the areas where you’re failing. In the case of Lean Cuisine, going from a white box to a black box was one of the most dramatic changes we could make, but we did it in a way that took their core consumers along on the journey and helped them to discover SKUs that had always been in their portfolio but had previously failed to be noticed because they looked too much like everything else. Ultimately, if we’re working on a declining brand and doing something that everyone’s comfortable with, we’re probably not pushing hard enough,” said Campbell.

In addition to the new color scheme and brand architecture, the food photography played a critical role in differentiating Lean Cuisine from competitors and increasing appetite appeal. “We needed the box to look so appetizing that people felt compelled to eat the packaging,” remarked Jhung.

“With the photography, we tried to break category conventions. All the existing offerings in the frozen aisle had the food styled perfectly on a white plate. For the Marketplace line, we did away with plates; the food sits directly on a black restaurant slate—which reminds consumers of a chalkboard where daily specials are written—and it looks much more authentic and less staged, like a real chef would make it. Each image was true to the mood we were shooting for, right down to the last detail—including the textiles, utensils, ingredients placed off to the side, and so on,” explained Bester.

Lean Cuisine’s bold attempts to change category perceptions attracted an unusual amount of attention from their retail partners. “It wasn’t just Lean Cuisine that was declining—it was the entire category, and retailers were eager to find a way to turn things around. In addition to competition from other areas of the store, frozen was losing share to out-of-home options such as healthier quick-serve restaurants. A lot of those category dollars were walking out of the store, and that really concerned retailers,” said Jhung.

“We even had retailers come to our packaging focus groups just to hear what consumers were saying.”

– Daniel Jhung, Vice President of Marketing at Nestlé USA

“We had a strong partnership based on our great shopper and consumer insights, and even had retailers come to our packaging focus groups just to hear what consumers were saying. They changed aspects of their shelf architecture to match up where they were going with our ‘food moods,’ and aligned their reset windows with our launch timing. Additionally, we launched a lot of new SKUs at the same time, and retailers took all of them. Bringing that volume back to the store and making those frozen doors—which are fixed assets for retailers productive again was huge for them,” added Jhung.

Lean Cuisine launched its new packaging in April 2015. The brand’s dollar volume went from a decline of -16.9% in the year prior to the re-launch to an increase of +3.7% in the following year. The Lean Cuisine Marketplace line alone generated an extra $58 million in retail sales during the year after the new design was launched. According to Nielsen research, 73% of consumers indicated that they would purchase the new design over the old one—making it the most preferred redesign in Nielsen’s Design Impact Award analysis. Additionally, 78% of consumers felt that the new design successfully addressed the key strategic objective: to position Lean Cuisine as a modern health and wellness partner, rather than a “diet” brand. The brand’s performance drove an incredible turnaround for the frozen nutritional meals category overall, reversing a declining sales trend of -9.9% in the year prior to re-launch to a near-stable -1.3% in the year following.

“I think the new design was likely the number one reason that the brand was able to turn itself around; it changed the brands equity and its fortune.”

– Daniel Jhung, Vice President of Marketing at Nestlé USA

“I knew the packaging was responsible for turning things around because there were three months where we only had the packaging on shelf—we had no TV or digital advertising during that time, and we started to see a significant lift in volume. Then the marketing we did afterwards really supported the packaging. I think the new design was likely the number one reason that the brand was able to turn itself around; it changed the brand’s equity and its fortune,” reflected Jhung.