Kepak Consumer Foods’ Rustlers brand has been shaking up the UK microwaveable snacking category over the years with quality innovation and marketing investment and done much to build the category in the process, but the company believes there is still plenty more potential for further growth in the broader chiller category, particularly in convenience format stores.

The key, as Alex Pickering, Category and Shopper Marketing Controller, explains to Grocery Trader, is implementing Kepak’s vision for the chilled category through the application of core category management principles.

Alex’s category management credentials are impressive. Before coming to Kepak three years ago, she spent 15 years at Warburton’s on Shopper Marketing, Category Management and Consumer Marketing, working with major grocery and convenience customers to deliver profitable and exciting bakery initiatives.

“In my present role I manage a team of skilled category managers across the convenience and grocery channels, plus external agencies, and drive insight across the business, to improve efficiency and understanding. I’m also heavily involved in supporting the development of our new shopper and activation strategy, which has the clear goal of driving category and brand growth.

“In parallel I liaise with our account managers on bespoke customer strategies, opportunities and future thinking on a variety of projects across range, merchandising and activation.”

Alex is passionate about her job: “One of the great things about working with the Rustlers brand, the UK’s number one micro-snacking brand and chilled ready meal, is that it is in such broad distribution. Consequently, my time is spent across grocery and convenience and all formats, including local, main estates, massive supermarkets and small convenience shops.”

The Kepak team works hand in hand with insight partners like Brand Potential, giving them a detailed understanding of purchase and consumption behaviour and the category overall. By being merchandised in the chiller, says Alex, Rustlers are competing for sales, not just with other microwaveable hot snacks, but all the other products in the chiller:

“Our competitive set is ‘convenience foods’ as a whole, covering many different product types and consumption occasions. It includes chilled and frozen ready meals, food to go, ready to eat cooked meat snacks, hot counter meat, chilled savoury snacks ambient packets, pots and tins and more.”

The convenience user profile is equally broad, Alex says, representing a diverse mix of attitudes and demographics:

“Some consumers are highly engaged and confident cooks, others are fussy eaters. There are consumers who adopt a credit and debit approach to diet and lifestyle and those who simply see food as fuel. What unites them all is time poverty and a need for solutions to help them navigate their busy lives.”

Health is coming to the fore in microwave snacks, says Alex, just as in many other categories:

“We’re actively reviewing how we introduce more products for customers looking for nutritionally balanced foods. We’ve begun this journey by reviewing and improving our chicken sandwich product, making a thirty percent reduction in fat and including a ‘high in protein’ message. Not only that, we’re aware that consumers want more than just a ‘quick cook’, the cooking process needs to be seamless and we’re exploring new and improved cooking methods to deliver this. We’re also conscious of increased interest in enriched burgers and the growing trend towards flexitarianism, and we’re researching the potential for meat-based products with health benefits.”

Flavour innovation is on Kepak’s radar too, adds Alex, including how to incorporate more international flavours to drive excitement and attract new shoppers. “Provenance is also rising up the shopper agenda and we’re proud of the fact our products can be traced to the farm of origin.”

Returning to the category management theme, Alex says the latest instance of Kepak working with retail partners on in-store merchandising is their current, convenience-facing ‘Merchandising Excellence’ initiative, rolling out across hundreds of stores. The move follows a series of trials which increased sales by up to 59% across chilled convenience categories in food-to-go and chilled ready meals fixtures.

The merchandising initiative was based on shopper research which identified shopper need states and key consumption occasions for microsnacking, as well as for other chilled convenience categories such as sandwiches, pies and pastries and cheese and meat snacks.

“We recognise that one size doesn’t fit all,” says Alex, “so we’ve developed a suite of planograms to suit different convenience store formats, including neighbourhood, high street, small, transient and forecourt.”

With growing numbers of multiple retail groups operating convenience format stores, Alex and colleagues work closely with them, looking at how to achieve viable growth that is relevant.

On the NPD front, up to now Kepak’s been all about meat products, but there’s no escaping the fact that meat free/vegan is a big consumer trend and Kepak is an ‘on-trend’ company. Will they be bringing out a meat free Rustlers? Alex answers diplomatically:

“As you’d imagine, this is an area we’re keeping a close eye on and exploring if and how we can play a role. If there’s a gap in the market, we want to ensure we plug it, aligned to consumer needs which we are scoping out currently.”

Meanwhile the Rustlers brand has been built on bold, quirky advertising. Long-time followers will be glad to know this is set to continue. In Alex’s words, “We’re maintaining our innovative, high-profile approach to supporting Rustlers this year. We’ve just run The Construction Games ‘Lunch – Nailed It’ campaign, which centred on a series of videos hosted by TV personality Vogue Williams, where the best from the industry went head-to-head in a series of challenges to be named Rustlers Construction Games champion.”

As part of the ‘Nailed It’ campaign, video content on Rustlers popular social media channels was backed by officebased sampling, a national radio and newspaper ad campaign and a wideranging PR campaign.

This summer Kepak is also running one of Rustlers’ biggest ever on-pack promotions aligned to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the epic next chapter in the cinematic Monsterverse (in cinemas 29th May).

Alex concludes: “This is an exciting time for the chilled category, as it’s becoming more of a focus for retailers and a destination category for shoppers. The average shopper now shops across multiple formats and retailers, visiting over five channels and eleven individual stores a month, and shopping around is becoming the established norm. For shoppers, the chilled category has become more accessible, which means more choice on range and products to suit more occasions, which can be shopped from more stores – and numerous locations within those stores.

“As chilled becomes more accessible, consumer expectations on product quality and flavour will increase, and we expect this to accelerate in the coming years. Manufacturers and retailers are marketing more on their quality credentials and I think this will become increasingly evident as we play our part as category experts.”

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