Image: Mrs. Butterworth's bottles
Mike Derer  /  AP
Mrs. Butterworth is talking on TV again because of Pinnacle Foods Corp.'s acquisition of the label. One analyst says the idea is a good one, "A lot of Boomers probably missed those brands."
updated 12/2/2007 5:46:26 PM ET 2007-12-02T22:46:26

The talking grandmother-shaped syrup bottle is back on television ads for Mrs. Butterworth's. The bespectacled Vlasic stork is hawking pickles again, too.

Boxes of Swanson TV dinners this year went back to their original, teal color scheme and portion size has been reduced.

All these once-heralded labels have come under the ownership of Mountain Lakes-based Pinnacle Foods Corp., whose strategy is to purchase tired but well-known packaged food brands like Lender's Bagels, Vlasic Pickles and Mrs. Butterworth's and reintroduce them, adding modern-day twists.

"We are a company of iconic brands that are very much part of the fabric of Americana, each of which has some great history and heritage," said Jeffrey Ansell, Pinnacle's chief executive officer.

Consumers know the products from ad campaigns of decades ago, and the company is trying to capitalize on that recognition, he said.

But there's a challenge: The American diet has changed. Besides fried chicken dinners and breakfast biscuits, people want healthy options, prompting Pinnacle to add new products.

As a result, Hungry-Man frozen dinners will offer new grilled entrees next year and Lender's has introduced a new whole wheat variety.

"We have to adjust our new product approach to reflect these trends," Ansell said.

He said consumers responded well to Log Cabin's introduction this year of a 100 percent-pure maple syrup product in an old-fashioned, Vermont-style country jug.

"It's important that new ideas match the essence of the brand, and what users of the brand respond favorably to," Ansell said.

He said the company's net sales are up nearly 4 percent so far this year.

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"We are encouraged by our improving sales trend, yet we are still early in our strategic shift toward increased consumer marketing, which began in 2007," he said.

Relying on nostalgia isn't a bad way to generate sales, especially with Baby Boomers, said Marcia Mogelonsky, an analyst with Chicago-based market research firm Mintel International Group.

"The basic strategy to revive old brands is never a bad one if the old ones were healthy and had good sales," she said. "A lot of Boomers probably missed those brands."

Many of the company's labels have been acquired from other companies where they really didn't fit. Pinnacle went through its own acquisition this year when the private equity firm Blackstone Group LP purchased it in February for $2.16 billion.

Armour's canned meats didn't really match with Dial Soap. Duncan Hines baking mixes weren't a natural fit for Procter & Gamble Co.

"A company like P&G, which owns a bazillion brands, didn't have time to baby-sit, no time or energy to take care of all these little brands," Mogelonsky said. "They (Pinnacle) adopt orphan brands that have not really fallen on hard times, but have been eclipsed by newer brands."

Pinnacle takes the latent equity in the label and makes it relevant to customers today, said Andy Reichgut, the company's vice president of marketing.

Eric Kastel, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, said consumers do latch on to the old, and a healthier product would encourage them to return.

"In general, the American public is getting more health conscious about everything," he said.

Pinnacle added whole grain options to Aunt Jemima's frozen breakfast items like pancakes and french toast and a whole wheat flavor to Lender's selection of frozen and refrigerated bagels. It's also moving Duncan Hines to the freezer section for the time-starved baker. Instead of needing an egg and a mixing bowl, brownies go right into the oven.

The strategy with Lender's is to promote the bagel as a healthy food that can be eaten at any time during the day, said Ray O'Brien, the label's vice president. He said the brand, now in its 80th year, previously was losing sales, nearly a double-digit decline.

"What we're trying to do is take the ... Lender's name, and see how we can rekindle it and make it as contemporary and relevant for today," he said. "Something you might have had years ago is still relevant for today."

He said sales were about $100 million last year, up 5 percent.

Pinnacle is spending about $25 million this year to rebrand the label. Pinnacle acquired it in 2004 from the bankrupt Aurora Foods, which had purchased Lender's from Kellogg Co. in 1999.

O'Brien said the company wants to emphasize its history, too. Polish immigrant Harry Lender opened a bagel shop in 1927 in West Haven, Conn., and takes credit for introducing the bagel to the American diet. Supermarkets began selling them in 1955.

Once limited to Eastern European Jews in large metropolitan cities, the bagel is now a ubiquitous bread product, sold by large chains like Starbucks Corp. and Panera Bread Co., and even bagel chain stores have emerged.

Still, some bagel fans in New York City said they'd pick any fresh bread product over a Lender's bagel.

"If I'm in Wisconsin, I might take the Lender's," said Peg Munves, 53, shopping at a Fairway grocery store in New York. "Living in New York, I have some options."

Around the country, Lender's is a supermarket staple, and its primary market is older adults and households with children.

The new whole wheat flavor doesn't appeal to Bonnie Pershin, 35, who eats a Lender's egg bagel "with a schmear" at least three times per week for breakfast. But as the mother of a 6-year-old son, she would favor organic maple syrup instead of Mrs. Butterworth's or other brands.

"I absolutely remember the bottle," said Pershin, shopping in a suburban Chicago grocery store. "If you have to put something on the waffle or pancake, I'd rather have my kid have 100 percent maple syrup than five or six different ingredients."

But the family is sold on Vlasic pickles, a 66-year-old brand, partly because of its famous stork.

"We buy it because my son sees the commercial, and they have more crunch," she said. "I remember the commercial."

Another shopper, 41-year-old Kristine Kent, said she is glad to hear that Hungry-Man would offer a grilled variety because her daughter likes to eat the frozen entrees.

"If you're buying a frozen meal, you've probably resigned yourself to the fact that it's probably not great for you," said Kent.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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