A view from Gemma Charles

Brand Health Check: Homepride

The sauces brand has suffered from lack of investment and a consumer shift toward upmarket rivals.

Premier Foods' Homepride cooking sauce range has gone off the boil, its sales falling across its portfolio in recent years, according to Mintel.

The brand's ambient Italian pasta-sauce range has been particularly badly hit, suffering a 13% drop in sales between 2002 and 2006. Its other ambient wet cooking sauces fell by 6.7% over the same period. To compound its woes, the decline has come at a time when rivals such as Masterfoods' Dolmio and Unilever's Bertolli have experienced sales growth.

Homepride was acquired by Premier Foods a year ago as part of its purchase of Campbell Soup Company's UK and Irish brands in a £460m deal. This month Premier began a review of its £26m UK ad business and will be aiming to return the sauces to growth.

Investing in the brand would be a start. According to Nielsen Media Research, while Masterfoods lavished £7.3m on advertising Dolmio last year, and Unilever spent £5.1m on Knorr, Homepride sauces were afforded a paltry £42,000.

In common with most other food sectors, the sauces market has seen a shift toward premium products and the use of natural ingredients. But whereas brands such as Sacla and Loyd Grossman have capitalised on this, the latter having grown in value by 84% over the past four years, it is bad news for Homepride, which has a more basic positioning.

Consumers have also been favouring chilled products, but here it has been own-label rather than their brand rivals that have made hay.

Homepride's brand icon, Fred, a distinctive black-and-white bowler-hatted character, is a key differentiator for the brand and has featured on its products since 1965. However, while Fred's relevance to flour is strong - he is, after all, a flour grader - his connection to Italian pasta sauces is somewhat more tenuous.

On the plus side, Fred does denote heritage and authenticity, which cannot be discounted as consumer interest in food's provenance grows. But it remains to be seen whether Homepride can build on this image sufficiently to fuel growth.

We asked James Bennett, head of marketing at Discovery Foods, and Tom Morton, head of planning at TBWA\London, whose clients include Masterfoods and Muller, how it can reverse its recent fortunes.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - JAMES BENNETT HEAD OF MARKETING, DISCOVERY FOODS

Homepride has found itself stuck in the middle of a polarising market; the premium end is driving growth and the mainstream end increased relevance, via product positioning and lifestyle ads.

While Loyd Grossman and Sacla have focused on the premium market, Knorr Chicken Tonight, Dolmio and Ragu have added value to the mainstream segments with successful brand extensions.

Knorr, for example, has extended into pouch packaging and more contemporary flavours, while Ragu has drawn attention to its tomatoes as a 'superfruit'.

However, Homepride seems to have stagnated, with little product development and an unclear brand identity. Its broad market positioning, coupled with a lack of specific cuisine/provenance, has made it difficult for it to be known for anything other than the loveable Fred.

Unfortunately, Fred originated from the Homepride flour brand and, in the world of cooking sauces, flour tends to signify 'gloop' rather than quality. On a positive front, though, Fred does bring warmth and personality to the brand.

REMEDY

- Be known for something - health or traditional home-cooked quality.

- Move the brand upmarket in perception terms, even if pricing and positioning are volume-driven.

- Revisit 'Fred' - can yesterday's family baker become today's authoritative chef?

- Stay within the ambient category, but consider pouch packaging and two-person servings to entice a younger audience and drive usage occasions.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - TOM MORTON HEAD OF PLANNING, TBWA\LONDON

Homepride is the perfect example of a brand that has failed to move with the times. Its situation could form a sequel to Life On Mars, in which 70s icon Fred the flour man wakes up in contemporary Britain and struggles to cope in a culture of Tesco Finest and Thai spices.

It has missed every food trend of the past decade - the shift to premium products, provenance, chef culture and the broadening palates of mass-market families. Its remaining equities - Fred and flour heritage - have little pulling power.

All this has commercial consequences. Homepride is declining in categories where every other player is growing. It is skulking its way to the bottom left of the Boston Matrix, where brand owners stop milking it and prepare to sell it or kill it.

But Premier Foods has plucked Homepride from this fate. Fingers crossed it doesn't attempt to play catch-up on trendy food, or subject poor Fred to a Captain Birdseye makeover. The brand is so far behind the trend of modern world food that its only credible option is to compete from its traditional heartland.

REMEDY

- It's too late to be modern. Take Asda as a role model of a food brand that has succeeded without talking about pesto.

- Focus on simple, honest British dishes - reclaim cauliflower cheese.

- Remember the values behind the words 'home' and 'pride' - family food, pride in cooking and helping the cook.

- Rationalise the range; the world does not need tinned sauce and the brand cannot credibly support cool, ethnic flavours.