Q&A: Erin Mrozek, Chicken of the Sea
By Steven Hedlund, SeafoodSource editor
04 May, 2012
Hailed in marketing materials as “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Chicken of the Sea No Drain Tuna hit the market on Wednesday to much fanfare. It’s the first no-drain canned tuna available in the U.S. market, each can containing “just a little water” as well as featuring an easy-to-open, peel-back lid.
Based in San Diego and owned by Thai Union Frozen Products, Chicken of the Sea International is confident that its technology will reinvigorate the canned-tuna category, which took a hit after the joint U.S. Food and Drug Administration-Environmental Protection Agency advisory in 2004 warned pregnant and nursing women to limit albacore tuna consumption. Since reaching 3.4 pounds in 2003 and 3.3 pounds in 2004, U.S. per-capita canned tuna consumption has teetered between 3.1 pounds (2005) and 2.5 pounds (2009); it totaled 2.7 pounds in 2010.
Despite the U.S. government’s misguided advisory, canned tuna is still America’s second favorite seafood item (behind shrimp) and an iconic sandwich filler. The three largest canned-tuna brands are working to boost sales, introducing new products such as flavored tuna and premium-grade tuna. But there are a lot of challenges, particularly the rising cost of raw material.
On Friday, SeafoodSource caught up with Erin Mrozek, Chicken of the Sea’s consumer marketing manager, to talk about how the company’s attempt at revitalizing the category with its no-drain canned tuna, which is currently available in four varieties — Solid White Albacore Tuna, Solid Light Tuna, Solid Light Thai Chili Tuna and Solid Light Lemon Pepper Tuna.
Hedlund: What type of feedback have you received so far about Chicken of the Sea No Drain Tuna?
Mrozek: Prior to the launch we did a lot of quantitative and qualitative research, focus groups and online studies, and we found that 74 percent of people 18 to 45 [years old] had a very high interest in purchasing a product such as No Drain, where they didn’t have to mess around with the liquid in the can. And 71 percent of people 46 and older had a very high interest. So, from a customer perspective, since it was just launched, we don’t have a lot of feedback at that level.
But pre-launch we got a lot of positive feedback from retailers. It’s been a total homerun! The smallest to the largest retailers tell us how exciting is to see this kind of innovation in the category. We’re offering a product that we know consumers have been asking for; they’re looking for something that’s convenient, something that’s a premium grade. And, to top it off, consumers have asked, “How do I eat tuna on the go when I have to squeeze the liquid out?” You now have the opportunity, in a can, to have the convenience of a premium, steak-like piece of tuna without the juicy mess whether you’re in an office, cafeteria, on the go, camping, hiking — now it’s way easier to prepare a sandwich or salad.
John West has had a lot of success with its no-drain canned tuna in the UK market. Because John West and Chicken of the Sea are both owned by Thai Union, was Chicken of the Sea able to tap John West’s expertise to develop the technology behind the no-drain?
John West launched [its no-drain tuna] a little over a year ago, and [as of this week] the no-drain items for John West represent a 9.3 percent share [of the UK’s canned-tuna market]. If you convert that to the U.S. market — a 9.3 percent share — it would be the equivalent of a USD 100 million launch. So it’s a pretty substantial piece of the puzzle.
From a technology standpoint, we were able to use those shared learnings, not only on the technology side but also on the research side. It’s proprietary information, but I can tell you that there is liquid that is put in the can, enough to keep the tuna moist and ensure that in the retort process there’s no scorching. Such little amount of liquid is used that when you open the can you don’t have the juice that you need to drain out.
At the European Seafood Exposition, the judges for the Seafood Prix d’Elite new products competition talked about the importance of packaging, and one judge said the only room for innovation in seafood right now is in packaging. How important is packaging when it comes to setting your product apart from the competition?
Packaging isn’t the only key to success, but it is absolutely one of the most critical keys to success. You could have the best package on the shelf, but if you have the wrong price point or you’re offering a product that no one’s interested in, you’re not going to move that product. If you have a product that people are interested in at the right price point and you’re packaging doesn’t communicate the benefit the reasons to purchase it, you’re not going to move that product.
This is an innovative product in the category, so we needed to follow the “keep it simple” program, where you literally through the name of the product explain what it does. So we could have named it something fancy, but we went with No Drain because we felt that instantaneously a consumers could understand what that meant and what the benefit would be to them. And that’s how we came up with that name. That being said, when you look at packaging in any category it’s what can or cannot set you apart from the competition or from other items in the store.
The challenge that we run into in the tuna industry is that if you look at a box of cereal, it’s a gigantic billboard to communicate messaging on. If you look at a can of tuna, you have a very small space to communicate the benefits of the product, nutritional information and brand information. We have to be very focused on what we feel the consumer needs to know in making that purchasing decision. Packaging is absolutely critical to the success of any product.
The shelf-stable seafood category in the United States has struggled to attract new users in recent years, but there are signs of growth. What’s driving that growth?
From a sales perspective, the category is flat, and a lot of that has to do with the rising cost of raw material, which leads to the rising cost of price at shelf. And if you look at a price elasticity study you know that the further up the price goes in any category, the more you’re going to see sales decline.
From an innovation perspective, it is growing. The category as a whole is doing a terrific job of capitalizing on the health and convenience benefits associated with seafood, and I think Chicken of the Sea is leading the change. No Drain is an example of that.
Of all the factors driving consumers to canned tuna — value and affordability, health, convenience, versatility — which one requires the greatest amount of marketing attention? Is there a particular factor that Chicken of the Sea is pushing in its marketing?
U.S. consumers subconsciously know that seafood is good for them; they realize that they need to eat as much if not more than the amount they’re currently eating. The 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines really helped in that it communicated to consumers that they’re not eating enough seafood and that it’s actually detrimental to your health if you’re not. We know the benefits of eating seafood are proven over and over again. So we’re really looking at, not only on pack but also through social media channels and advertising channels, talking about those health benefits and the reasons to eat seafood.
The USD 20 million Tuna the Wonderfish marketing campaign has been scaled back significantly this year, due to the rising cost of raw material and other expenses by the major tuna canners. Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on partnering with your competitors to jointly market canned tuna? Does it work?
If you’re in a category that you’re passionate about and you know that that category is something that’s incredibly good for consumers globally, I think that the campaign was incredibly successful at doing that. If you’re going out there with the right intention — to educate consumers on something that’s healthy and good for them — that’s a very big benefit.
In terms of partnering with your competitors, as with anything, there are challenges and learnings. I would say that we had an incredibly positive [experience] working with StarKist and Bumble Bee on the campaign. We all came at it with good intentions, and I think we saw a lot of success. Unfortunately, with the rise in fish costs, it had to be scaled back.
04 May, 2012