Not 'Kid'-ding Around

By Megan Pellegrini

Taste and fun are often the key ingredients to winning over the smallest consumers, even when nutritional products are involved.

Let’s face it, there aren’t too many kids who have met a chicken nugget they didn’t like. Breaded, fried and crunchy, these fun and tasty products dish up the ultimate in kid appeal. They also get saddled with a bad rap from parents for being high in fat and calories. As time-stressed parents look for healthy, convenient meal options, poultry and meat manufacturers are responding with low-fat, low-sodium products.
In the past two years, protein processors have launched a plethora of kid-friendly products. Perdue, Tyson Foods and Advance Brands, to name a few suppliers, have introduced chicken breast nuggets in the shapes of fish, stars and dinosaurs. Coleman Natural Foods rolled out its Rocky Jr. line of all-natural chicken nuggets. Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables have tweaked their product lines to reduce fat and sodium, while Pilgrim’s Pride launched EatWellStayHealthy Kids low-fat nuggets and popcorn chicken.
The meat and poultry industry is finally reaching out to the $260 billion tween (8- to 12-year-old) market. According to Greg Livingston, executive vice president of Cincinnati-based WonderGroup, protein processors didn’t take this audience seriously until five or six years ago. “Their focus has mainly been on adults and the family,” he says. “They primarily want to provide mom with solutions.”
Inclusive Generation X moms seek out their children’s input on what to buy, in essence creating one “Super Consumer,” as the youth-marketing company WonderGroup calls them.
So far, children haven’t been loyal to many meat or poultry kid-based products. When children are asked to name their favorite foods, nine out of 10 will pick the perennial favs: mac and cheese and pizza.
“I wouldn’t say that kids gravitate toward meat or have a particular affection for it,” says Paul Metz, vice president of Chicago-based C&R Research, a market research firm known for its KidzEyes Panel. ”Hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets will be mentioned by a decent number of kids, though, partially because of McDonald’s and their Happy Meals, which provide fun.”
Taste, fun and looks
While their moms look for healthy, convenient foods, their little companions want taste, fun and looks with their products — exactly in that order, too. Consumers of all ages select products because they taste good, and children are no different. These finicky eaters prefer crunchy, sweet products that won’t upset their sensitive palates, says Dan Emery, vice president of marketing for Pilgrim’s Pride, based in Pittsburg, Texas.
If children perceive an item to be fun, then it naturally has a leg up on other foods, as shown with Oscar Mayer Lunchables — a hands-on, play-with-your-food meal — and chicken nuggets, which can be dipped into ketchup or other sauces. And if they come in colorful or unique packaging, even better. Children like what they see advertised too, says Stephanie Azzarone, president of New York’s Child’s Play Communications.
“Even toddlers and preschoolers are susceptible to advertising,” she says. “And if young children are familiar with a brand because they’ve seen it on TV, that will also appeal to them.”
Certified healthy (and kid-friendly)
However colorful and fun a product is, health-savvy parents will think twice today before buying foods they perceive as not healthy. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of overweight or obese children has more than doubled in the past 30 years, and 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight.
“Any product that offers a healthier version will find a market, as long as the innovative version still tastes good,” says Azzarone. “At the same time, food marketers should go out of their way to promote any health advantages of existing lines.”
Last fall, Pilgrim’s Pride introduced an extension of its two-year-old EatWellStayHealthy line, with EatWellStayHealthy Kids Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets and Breaded Popcorn Chicken. The baked, not fried, nuggets are the first of its kind to feature the USDA-regulated word “healthy” on the packaging. Both products are also certified by the American Heart Association (AHA) with its “heart-check mark” seal of approval.
All products in the line are made from whole-muscle chicken breast meat and contain zero trans fat. These products have less than half the calories, half the carbohydrates and 80 percent less fat per serving than the leading national brand, says Emery. The golden nuggets are also approved for Child Nutrition Labeling, a voluntary federal labeling program for the USDA’s Child Nutrition Programs.
Emery notes that Pilgrim’s Pride was inspired to launch low-fat, breaded chicken products because of the lack of healthy options for children in the freezer aisle. “We follow the news like everyone else, and know there is a problem with childhood obesity,” he says.
Pilgrim’s Pride isn’t making the mistake of marketing its nuggets just like children’s cereal. “We market to moms to catch their eye,” says Emery.
The poultry processor used research to develop stylish packaging that is attractive to mothers, but not necessarily children. With 60 percent of moms working today, packaging has to show how the product is convenient and easy to prepare.
To keep its appeal to parents, the Lunchables Lunch Combinations team — creator of products such as Maxed Out items, Mini Hot Dogs, Mini Pizza, Mini Tacos, Chicken Dunks and Chicken Shake Ups — continually creates and implements nutritional improvements to its product lines. Over the past two years, Lunchables has decreased the fat, saturated fat, sodium and calories of its products, while increasing nutrients that kids need, such as protein, calcium and Vitamin C, says Darin Dugan, director-marketing for Lunchables Lunch Combinations, based in Madison, Wis.
For example, Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza (30 percent less fat), Pepperoni Pizza (25 percent less sodium) and Turkey and American Stackers (36 percent less sodium) have all experienced some “weight loss.”
And it’s being noticed in the marketplace. Maxed Out, which gives kids the opportunity to take their food from mild to hot via salsa and other condiments, grew just over 6 percent in retail sales in 2006, says Dugan.
These products are marked with a green “Sensible Solutions” flag on the front of the package to help make it easier for moms to take the guesswork out of providing a fun, healthy meal option. The newest additions to this line are Pepperoni Flavored Sausage Mini Pizza, Mini Hot Dogs and Maxed Out Extra Cheesy Deep Dish Pizza.
In addition, the Lunchables Brigade, a trio of kids that are featured on pack and online, encourage kids to be active through games and sports.
According to Mary Gavin, a pediatrician and senior fellow with, it’s a misperception that children will only accept fatty, high-calorie versions of chicken nuggets, grilled cheese and pizza for meals.
“I liken it to the poor choices on most kids’ menus at restaurants,” she says. “We do children a disservice if we limit their palate that way.” She suggests exposing children to a variety of healthy foods as early as possible.
All in the presentation
Meat and poultry processors are creating packaging that has youth or kid appeal. In the frozen aisle, children — who tend to be very visual and literal — are seeing licensed characters, product shots and forms as diverse as dinosaurs, footballs and drumsticks, and bright colors that are fun and oriented to their interests.
The most colorful, age-appropriate packaging, however, will go unnoticed by children if it is not part of a vibrant display or sampling booth, or at their eye level. Otherwise, the products simply do not exist to them. According to Livingston, Wal-Mart does a noteworthy job creating colorful promotional displays with sporting event tie-ins.
“Children have absolutely no orientation to price,” laughs Livingston, but rather want to see familiar products that line up with their wishes, such as fast-food burgers and nuggets. “They won’t orient to a new product unless its packaging and communication is innovative.”
He points to Borden’s former product launch of Power Ranger cheese as an example of a good idea gone bad. The product had appealing, colorful packaging with popular cartoon characters, but since Borden didn’t advertise it heavily or display it differently, kids didn’t know it existed and consequently didn’t ask for it.
With its Home Team School Rewards program, Advance Brands is informing students (and parents) about its Fast Fixin’ products while they are in school. The processor of products such as Dino Bites (certified by the government with the approved, child nutrition label), Popcorn Chicken, Chicken Bites and Chicken Fingers, Advance Brands has created a school fundraising event that requires students and school officials to send in Home Team logos from its packaging for 30 cents apiece. The processor matches the first $100 in labels and provides the marketing materials for the campaign.
“It’s a real grassroots effort, but is paying off,” says Billy McPherson, vice president of sales and marketing for Oklahoma City-based Advance Brands.  
McPherson notes that Advance Brands has received positive feedback on its “better for you” food marketing. Consumers had requested healthier products with zero trans fat and less sodium, so the company revamped existing products to meet their requirements.
“We’ve found it has to be a great product or parents won’t buy it again,” he says. “Kids are pretty picky after all.”
The company ran focus groups with children to test out its new recipes. Currently it is experimenting with baked breading.
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