New Focus on Seasonal Promotions
Boosts Sales for Barilla America 

By Dale Buss

As long as the pasta and sauce industry has been around, brands like Barilla have understood that there are seasonal patterns to how American shoppers purchase them. But by studying these seasonal patterns with unprecedented focus and granularity, Barilla has come up with ways to more effectively promote its products throughout the year, boosting unplanned purchases, stretching the variety of products that shoppers pick up, and enhancing profit margins for the U.S. arm of the Italian pasta giant.

“We’re starting to capitalize more on seasonal opportunities,” Craig Geiger, director of category development and shopper insights for Barilla America, the Bannockburn, Ill.-based U.S. arm of Parma-based Barilla, told CPGmatters.

“There’s been a big benefit to internal planning that is helping to drive the way we approach some of our promotions. And we’ve started to do more seasonal promotions. If you can change the variety of products you’re promoting based on how consumers are living and eating at that time of year, and how they’re stocking their pantries, you have greater chances of driving incremental sales.”

Barilla is still early in its intensified approach toward seasonal marketing. “We’ve put together a foundational document on the pasta path to purchase to grow seasonal opportunities,” Geiger explained. Research via GfK, Smart Revenue and Nielsen helped Barilla understand its customers better and come up with that approach.

Next step: Barilla authorized more research about the pre-store phase where consumers research products and make decisions about what they’re going to buy. Results of that research should be available to harness next year.

Make no mistake: Barilla executives understand that pasta, especially, and sauce are staple purchases of the American shopper, and have been for decades, and that seasonal trends affect the category only on the margins.

“They’re purchased and merchandises year-round almost weekly,” Geiger said. “Pasta is in 85% percent of American households. And we don’t want to lose that year-round stock-up and dinner-that-night opportunity.”

Yet as fundamental as pasta purchases are and have been to the American diet, Geiger explained, research also found that there exists a lot of opportunity for pasta brands to influence the exact types of pasta cuts, sauces and other related products that Americans purchase on any given trip.

“Shopping for pasta and sauce tend to be very habitual,” Geiger said. “But influencing specific cuts and varieties can be very important at retail because pasta is a category where consumers demonstrate high autonomy to make decision in the store. That means variety is really important. If you can marry that fact with a season approach, we think there are incremental opportunities for driving sales and share of basket.”

Barilla’s research identified five basic seasonal orientations for pasta purchases throughout the year:

Back to School: The current period that represents such a crucial change of pace and opportunity for many CPG brands also affects the pasta category. During this period, moms shopping for pasta tend more than other times to favor kid-friendly shapes such as elbows, wheels and rotini, for use in basic tummy-warming entrees such as macaroni and cheese. Fully 31% percent of Barilla’s kid-friendly “mini-cuts” are sold in July through September, six percentage points higher than during any other quarter.

Pre-Holiday Nesting: Identified as the period from roughly Columbus Day through mid-November, this is when many American households typically hunker down into a routine they’ll follow for the next several months.

“Moms start to plan again for daily meals,” Geiger said. Effective promotions tend to favor heartier pastas such as rigatoni and more robust sauces such as vodka sauce.

Holiday Entertaining: With the Christmas holidays arrive, there is more customer preference for bankable pastas and heavier cuts such as lasagna and manicotti, Geiger said, and fancier types of pasta that lend themselves to entertaining and big meals.

Post-Holiday Wellness: This is an increasingly distinct season for pasta purchases, beginning in earnest in January and after the Super Bowl and extending through the spring. And as much as Americans buy more exercise equipment and diet soft drinks during this season, they also are turning more and more to Barilla’s “better-for-you” varieties of pasta, such as Whole Grain and Veggie. Such purchases peak during this period. Overall, they have become 15 to 20% of the entire pasta category nowadays – about double their share of five years ago, Geiger said.

Summer Leisure: This is another season where Barilla’s new recognition of important seasonal trends is boosting results. Family meals tend to be more casual; outdoor activities are more frequent; fresh ingredients and different flavors are more welcome. Pasta salads and cuts such as elbow macaroni and tri-color rotini are in greatest demand.

“So you also see fresh produce, salad dressings and pestos more often become part of the shopping basket along with pastas,” he said.

More and more, Geiger and his associates are harnessing this understanding in tangible promotional strategies and tactics. For example, last year Barilla launched a “Color Your Summer” promotion in which pasta for salads was featured along with giveaways of summer accessories such as wine glasses.

“This research has changed our planning process for everything from advertising to social media,” he said. “And we’re also finding that retailers also are getting more and more eager to take advantage of the seasonal opportunities that we’re showing them are there.”

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                                                                           October 2012