PremierBusinessExperts.com’s Insights Regarding the Future of Blue Bell Ice Cream
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Back in the 1980’s, Dr. A. Bruce Clark, Ph.D. (often referred to as “ABCPhD” due to his initials and credentials as well as his web site ABCPhD.com) worked in Quality Assurance for Con Agra Frozen Foods. At the time Con Agra had a product line known as Armour Dinner Classics, an upscale line of TV dinner type products (the word “type” is added since Campbell’s Soup with its Le Menu and Swanson dinners held the rights to the term “TV dinner”) were doing quite well on grocery store shelves during the middle to late 1980’s.
However, its marketing department decided to add a MicroreadyTM indicator to tell when the dinners were cooked in the microwaves and they rushed the dinners with the indicators out the door (based solely upon focus group results) in the anticipation that the indicators would greatly boost sales. What was the result? The indicators, which sat on top of a plastic dome covering the dinners, worked well with “middle of the road wattage microwaves.” As steam rose from the dinners, the gap in a blue-dyed oil strip closed due to the heat. In essence, it was like forming a line with a small gap between two very small sticks of butter and watching the gap between them fill as the sticks melted.
Yet, there was a major problem in that the indicators were never tested in microwaves of various wattages. (This was despite Con Agra’s test kitchen possessing many different types and wattages of microwave ovens.) Hence, if a household had a high-wattage microwave, the rays were zapping the food, while it took time for the steam to rise to set off the indicator, which meant that the high-wattage folks sometimes had food that looked like anthracite coal when their MicroreadyTM indicators were triggered. Conversely, the low-wattage consumers had portions of their dinners, which looked like frozen tundra when their MicroreadyTM devices indicated that their dinners were fully cooked.
Because of the bad publicity, the dinners (Dr. Clark has in his possession actual before and with MicroreadyTM indicator cartons) had to be pulled from all shelves in all stores. The short-term fix was to change the heating directions with an adhesive label on top of “the heat until the indicator shows that a dinner is cooked” (i.e., on the back of the packages) to, in essence, the original heating directions of nine to eleven minutes with the comment to check the indicator and if it had not “gone off,” heat for an additional short period. The next step after printing boxes with the same type of message as on the adhesive labels, and using an indicator that was almost certain to “go off” within the original heating time period, was to begin using a three-compartment plate (much like one sees at church picnics), change the name from “Armour Dinner Classics” to “Armour Classics” and hype the fact that the new plates kept the sauce on the skeletal muscle tissue (i.e., meat, poultry or fish) separate from the sauce on the vegetable component separate from the sauce on the starch component. Yet, while the Armour Classics did not have the MicroreadyTM indicators, severe damage had been done to the “Armour frozen brand” and its image, and the sales of the “Armour Dinner Classics” with the MicroreadyTM indicator, and the three-compartment-plate “Armour Classics” without the MicroreadyTM indicator, never approached the levels of the Armour Dinner Classics line just before the indicator was added and one can no longer find those product lines in the frozen food cases of his or her grocery stores.
What was the ultimate solution? It was to somewhat reformulate the products, dramatically change the packaging look and rename the products “Healthy Choice,” a task that Dr. Clark found easier said than done, since there was a federal law stating that one could not make a health claim in the name of a product. Yet, Dr. Clark (using the knowledge obtained from his agriculture, biochemistry and nutrition degrees from Ohio State and Texas A&M, as well as his doctoral marketing degree work at Saint Louis University) was able to convince the Head of the USDA Standards Department that the intent of the law was to prevent things like “Sex Potency Cereal” due to the addition of Vitamin E, which increases the fertility rates and litter sizes in rats and mice, not that one wants more rats and mice, as Dr. Clark notes with a smile.
So, where does this leave Dr. Clark in terms of his beliefs about Blue Bell? He feels that “the longer Blue Bell is off the shelves, the harder it will be to make a strong comeback. Retailers have already filled the gaps in their shelves with other products, and in many cases those products have the retailers’ own ‘house labels.'” As Dr. Clark further notes, “even in ‘normal times’ the retailer often makes twice as much per dollar sold of their own ‘house brand’ versus a ‘name brand’ and now with Blue Bell on the ropes retailers are more aggressively promoting their own ‘ice cream departments’ and, in some cases, their own ‘ice cream manufacturing plants.'”
According to Dr. Clark, “if we assume that the retailer makes six cents per dollar on its own brand of ice cream versus three cents per dollar on a ‘manufacturer name brand’ and that the price of a 1.5 quart package of its own brand is $3.00, while that of a 1.5 quart ‘manufacturer name brand’ is $4.00, the retailer can come out ahead by selling its own brand since six cents per dollar times three dollars is eighteen cents, which is greater than three cents per dollar times four dollars, which is twelve cents.” Thus, if a retailer is seeing its own lower-priced brand selling as many or more units, as a manufacturer name brand, Dr. Clark “cannot envision such a retailer as being overly anxious to clear its own brand off of the shelf to replace it with a ‘reintroduced’ brand.”
As Dr. Clark notes, this might mean that Blue Bell has to pay “slotting fees” to get its brand back on store shelves. According to Dr. Clark, “slotting fees for new products are often in excess of $100 per Stocking Keeping Unit (meaning Universal Product Code) per store.” Thus, he muses that “to get just 1.5 quart sizes of chocolate ice cream onto the shelves of 10,000 stores (which is close to one-fourth of the Progressive Grocer Magazine count of 37,716 grocery stores, not including drug and other stores, selling $2 million or more last year) might cost in excess of $1 million in terms of just the space rental fees for the first year or two and no guarantees that the product will continue being stocked after a set period if its sales languish.”
Does this mean that Blue Bell cannot claw its way back into the hearts and minds of those who grew up with the brand? According to Dr. Clark, “the road will not be easy and Blue Bell is going to have to show that it has the cleanest facilities and best products.” If it can do that Dr. Clark notes that it stands a chance of being the next “Healthy Choice,” a brand that he was instrumental in spearheading while completing his doctorate at Saint Louis University and working full-time at Con Agra until it announced its move to Omaha. As for more on Dr. Clark, you are invited to visit the PremierBusinessExperts.com web site, and he welcomes your contacting him for his expertise, which he provides at reasonable rates. Quite possibly, even the once mighty Blue Bell management can now use his God-given wisdom.
Dr. Clark welcomes contact from media outlets and civic organizations regarding this story. Similarly, he allows the reprinting of this article without modification and can provide pictures of the before, and with, MicroreadyTM cartons.