Michelina’s brand extension brings fine dining home

The numbers are in. Only months after last fall's debut, Michelina's upscale Ristorante extension has snagged the frozen entrée king an additional 4% share of the national frozen dinner market by unit sales - and an additional 6% by dollar sales....

The numbers are in. Only months after last fall’s debut, Michelina’s upscale Ristorante extension has snagged the frozen entrée king an additional 4% share of the national frozen dinner market by unit sales – and an additional 6% by dollar sales.

Part of the credit goes to Toronto-based Design Partners for successfully solving a classic package design dilemma. Namely, when you’re launching a brand extension, how do you create a look that’s different enough to capture a new market, but familiar enough to leverage existing equity?

Minneapolis, Minn.-based Michelina’s turned to Design Partners for the Canadian packaging when the company realized that it would take more than the usual promotional antics to get its new line of premium restaurant-inspired dinners into crowded retail freezers.

‘The retail trade didn’t have much interest in having any more frozen entrées in their freezers,’ says Rob McKenzie, a member of Michelina’s senior marketing team. ‘If the buyer at Loblaws, for example, had laid eyes on these items when he saw them in his office and his first impression had been, ‘Oh, it’s another line of frozen entrees,’ we would have struggled to get in. But obviously the impression he got was that this was something different.’

In 1992, Michelina’s introduced its core line of J.M. Schneider-distributed frozen entrées to Canadian consumers. In the first five years, the brand, which boasted a ‘great quality, great price’ value proposition, grew to command a 19% share of the market. Sales further increased following a 1997 package redesign by Design Partners, and the introduction of several new product lines, including a line of value-priced ‘better-for-you’ products under the Michelina’s LifeStyles banner, along with one of Canada’s first microwavable single-serve pizzas.

When Michelina’s felt it had exhausted opportunity in the value-priced segment of the category, it opted to expand into a ‘new usage occasion,’ says McKenzie.

‘As a value brand, we tended to be a bit of a lunch occasion brand. We wanted to do something more upscale and a little more substantial in terms of serving size. We saw dinner as an opportunity,’ he says. ‘And because that took us more head-to-head with some of our competitors, we needed a bit of a unique positioning.’

Michelina’s core line is ‘quintessentially Italian,’ he says – traditional cuisine and authentic recipes that evoke a warm and comfortable feeling – and the Ristorante line builds on that image with 12 premium, contemporary restaurant-style entrées, six of which are low in fat and carry the LifeStyle banner. When it came to the packaging, says McKenzie, the goal was to modernize without eliminating any of the core characteristics consumers had become so fond of.

‘That was a bit of a double-edged sword,’ says Chris Plewes, director, design strategy at Design Partners. ‘There was no point in introducing Ristorante and not being able to build the value of the core Michelina’s line. We had to reference those solid virtues, but find ways to extend that into a more contemporary restaurant experience.’

In addition to immediately spinning the line off as a sub-brand under the Michelina’s banner, the team set out to create a unique set of design elements, he says.

Core components like the cameo of ‘Momma Michelina,’ the woodcut illustration of vegetables in the background and the product photograph were incorporated into the new package design, but with a bit of a twist, says Plewes.

‘In a way, you could argue that the Ristorante design was really taking the traditional structure of the core line and tilting it on an angle to give it a familiar, yet refreshingly new look,’ he says.

Drawing inspiration from restaurant interiors, menus, signage, gourmet cuisine and lifestyle magazines, Design Partners attempted to evoke the feeling of dining in a restaurant – a step away from traditional, everyday, comfort food into something more ‘exotic,’ Plewes adds.

Bright, modern colouring – a vibrant red-rose base accented with a lemon yellow and deep purples – a fun, contemporary font, and a layered effect produced by superimposing a translucent printed panel over the left edge of the product photo were used to create atmosphere.

The prominent placement of a large product shot, displayed on a ‘fine dining-oriented’ plate, serves to further reinforce the restaurant experience, but also caters to consumers who tend to shop by flavour – basing their choices on the description of the contents and the photograph, he says.

Finally, overall simplicity and clarity was vitally important, adds Plewes, particularly in a category with so many brands and flavours to choose from.

‘When we were developing this, we really looked at it and said: ‘If Ristorante was a place, what would it look like, what would it feel like?’ Design Partners really did breathe life into the package. You can picture in your mind a place where you might want to go and dine when you experience the whole look and feel of the package,’ says Rhonda Asbreuk, a member of Michelina’s senior marketing team.

The entire design process, she notes, was virtually snag-free – a circumstance she attributes primarily to the constant collaboration of the two teams from the outset of the project, which began with several pencil sketches, to its successful conclusion.

‘The interesting thing about the pencil-sketch stage, and the reason we are such big advocates of it, is that quite often the first phase of the process is where people learn about what certain words or objectives mean when applied visually,’ adds Plewes. ‘By doing a series of pencil sketches, and providing a broad range of ideas, we were able to make sure we were exploiting all the opportunities.’

He recalls a number of ideas that didn’t make the final cut. They were literal interpretations of the restaurant experience, and really overplayed the idea – using elements like candlesticks and tablecloths, for example, he says.

‘It was the ideas that were more symbolic of the restaurant experience, as opposed to literal, that led us in the right direction.’

The result? Not only did the Ristorante sub-brand help Michelina’s capture that additional 4% share, but it did it without cannibalizing sales of the existing frozen entrée line.

Asbreuk also says that recent qualitative consumer research has shown consumers do clearly understand that Ristorante is a distinct, more upscale product line from Michelina’s.

Also in this report:

- New designs draw on brand equity: Repackaging moves up on brand development agenda p.B7

- Nexient delivers modern classics: Designers overcame contradiction to perfect whisky packaging p.B9

- Package design deconstructed p.B11