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Glossy bags give entrées a boost

When it comes to taking the pulse of consumers, Advance Brands, Oklahoma City, has worked with almost medical precision to understand consumers' desires for flavorful and easy-to-prepare meal solutions delivered in packaging that is convenient and inviting. Through trial and error and the willingness to break from tradition in order to address these needs, Advance Brands has become the third-largest brand in the processed poultry category, with an average growth rate of 30-plus percent per year for the past three years.

Advance Brands was formed in 2001 as a joint venture between Advance Food Company, a provider of portion-controlled meat products primarily for the foodservice industry, and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., which distributes fresh, cooked and marinated meats to foodservice and retail customers. Explains Bill McPherson, vp of sales and marketing for Advance Brands, the new company was established to sell branded retail product.

In 1982, Advance Food Company entered the retail market with its Advance Fast Fixin'® line of trayed, fully cooked meat products, but it wasn't until 1998 that it began heavily promoting the brand. At that time, it redesigned the logo and packaging, moving from flexo-printed bags and cartons to resealable, gravure-printed flexible pouches from Nordenia USA, Inc. (www.nordeniausa.com), and the brand took off.

Says McPherson, "You can really trace a lot of the growth of our company back to when we launched that type of packaging. We did a lot of focus groups to determine whether we should do boxes or bags, what the packaging should look like and whether consumers should be able to see the product. Putting that all together and launching that line has really been the growth vehicle that we've ridden for the last four or five years."

Advance Brands' core convenience line is the Fast Fixin' Value Line, which is available nationwide in most retail grocery chains. Comprising fully cooked, breaded and charbroiled beef, chicken, pork, turkey and veal entrées, the products are marketed in both the fresh-meat and freezer cases. According to Bridget Little, senior manager of consumer marketing for the company, the line was created to provide quality, variety and value. Among the top-selling items in the line are Chicken Breast Nuggets, Chicken Breast Strips and Popcorn Chicken.

Introduced five years ago, the Fast Fixin' Restaurant Style line of chicken and beef entrées duplicates some of the more popular takeout items found in family-style restaurants. More than 25 varieties make up the line, including Chicken Breast Tenders, Country Fried Steaks, Fire Roasted Chicken Breasts, Steak Fingers, Philly Steaks, Beef Burgers and more. Earlier this year, Advance Brands launched its first ready-to-cook product, Fast Fixin' Sirloin Philly Beef Steak.

When the Fast Fixin' line was first introduced, it consisted of products such as chicken nuggets and strips packaged in polystyrene trays and covered with shrink-wrapped film that were displayed in the fresh meat case. Says Little, "Ten years ago, that's how most of these products were packaged. If consumers were buying meat out of the fresh-meat case, they wanted to feel that it had been wrapped up in the back of the store and was really fresh."

Advance Brands' first effort at rolling out a bag in 1996 "was a very poor one," McPherson recalls. "It was actually just a white, nongusseted bag with very ugly artwork, which on paper, looked very good." In addition, the bags were surface-printed, which meant that the unprotected graphics were prone to scuffing and scratching.

In 1998, Advance Brands began its first set of focus groups to learn more about consumers' attitudes toward its entrée packaging. The feedback bolstered the company's decision to use bags, but indicated a need for new, more impactful graphics. After a bag redesign guided by Little, Advance Brands tried flexo printing its pouches, but found that the resulting graphics lacked consistency and real definition. "I know that in the past seven years, vast leaps have been made in plate technology for flexo printing. But at the time, we found it to be fairly inconsistent," says Little.

However, notes McPherson, despite the fact that flexo failed to deliver the quality Advance Brands sought, the new bag design put the company on the right track for delivering a powerful packaging solution. "When Bridget came on board, she took us to the next level and started showing us gusseted bags and above all, the artwork to go on them," he says.

In 1998, Advance Brands introduced two new products under the Easy Beginnings name (now Fast Fixin' Restaurant Style), packaged in resealable, bright-red, flexible pouches printed via gravure by Nordenia. "Because of the problems we experienced with flexo," Little recalls, "we printed two bags with Nordenia and found a significant difference in print quality, consistency and definition. 'The light came on,' and we quickly moved all of our Fast Fixin'-branded bags to gravure printing."

Today, while Advance Brands still sells millions of tray-packs—although with more sophisticated labeling—sleeved tray-packs and cartons, depending upon the product and where the item is being displayed in the store, the majority of its entrées use gravure-printed, gusseted, standup pouches and gusseted form/fill/seal bags. This includes around 100 stockkeeping units in the Fast Fixin' and Fast Fixin' Restaurant Style lines and at least 77 private-label skus, in sizes ranging from 6 to 37.5 oz.

The bags are constructed from a 48-ga, reverse-printed polyethylene terephthalate layer laminated to a 3-mil PE sealant film. George Waldon, East Region sales manager for Nordenia, says that this construction was selected for its stiffness and high gloss, and the printability of the PET layer. The PE layer was extruded in-house at Nordenia's Jackson, MO, facility using one of the converter's six Windmoeller & Hoelscher (www.whcorp.com) extrusion machines that provide the company with the capability to create films with up to seven layers from 65-ga to 10-mils thick.

Fairly unique in the industry, Nordenia also performs its own film separation and gravure-cylinder engraving services on-site, to speed turnaround time and reduce its dependence on outside suppliers. "The fact that they do their own cylinder engraving right there is incredible," says Little. "It saves us a lot of time and money in the long run. Because, if you have a problem with a cylinder, they can just walk right over and engrave another one." She adds that when Advance Brands began working with Nordenia, Advance's in-house designers spent time in the converter's prepress department "learning tricks that would make it easier for them to provide Nordenia with digital artwork."

Bag graphics, in vibrant red and blue, with tempting images of the entrées, are printed in seven to eight colors on one of Nordenia's four W&H Heliostar gravure presses, which together allow the company to print in up to eight colors on film widths ranging from 51 to 79 in. While some printed film is supplied to Advance Brands as rollstock later used to create bags on the company's f/f/s machines, the standup pouches are premade on Nordenia's range of bagmaking equipment. The bags formed from rollstock are produced at Advance Brands' Orange City, IA, production facility.

Throughout Advance Brands' entrée packaging evolution, its consumer focus groups encouraged the company to pioneer the use of bags for its fully cooked meat and poultry products. Recalls McPherson, "When we introduced the bags, everybody was in boxes. I remember doing presentations to retailers, and they would love the product, but they would want to know why it wasn't in a box.

"One of the things that these focus groups told us was that when the consumer would get this type of product home, they would throw away the box and put the product in something more convenient, like a clear bag. This basically eliminated the cooking instructions. Boxes definitely display well in stores, but they are not practical in a home freezer. When we asked the focus groups whether they would rather have these products in a bag or in a box, it was dramatic how many people wanted bags."

Another thing Advance Brands learned from focus groups was the perceived value of products packed in pouches versus cartons. They also discovered that, despite what consumers may say about their desire for product visibility, they are more attracted to packaging that is eye-catching and appetizingly decorated. "At the time, everybody felt like the consumer wanted to see the product," says Little. "But when we would put packaging down in front of them, they would all pick the bright graphics—the product that looked great in the photoshoot."

In today's competitive food and beverage market, Little advises, "the package is really your selling point." She adds, "Getting that billboard effect behind that glass door [of the refrigerated case] is imperative. So you have to provide enough color and enough 'wow' to get the consumer to open the door, because it's pretty dark back there. If you have dark, dull packaging, consumers are going to walk right by your product. Every time you print on a bag, you get a shiny effect, you get the 'bling,' because it's bright and it pops out."

Advance Brands gives kudos to Nordenia for the speed and quality with which they implemented the transition of its brands to gravure. Says McPherson, "In this business, it's all about time-to-shelf, quickness to market. So really, your printer is your partner. And Nordenia has definitely partnered with us on this program. They are a major supplier for us, and are worth their weight in gold."


More information is available:
Nordenia USA, Inc., 573/335-4900. www.nordeniausa.com.
Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp., 800/854-8702. www.whcorp.com.
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