The migration of ambient foods to the chiller cabinet is setting a cool challenge for brand managers competing against own-label products. Louise Hunt reports on the design issues

There appears to be no going back to the days of squirreling food at the bottom of a deep freeze chest or the darkest recesses of the larder. Save for times of national crisis – say a petrol strike – the resounding emphasis in food shopping today is fresh, instant and, increasingly, choice.

Over the last two decades the supermarket chiller cabinet has become synonymous with these desires. Products that have lived a stable life on ambient shelves are inching across the great divide in an attempt to take advantage of the same health and convenience cues.

An obvious example is the launch of larder staple Heinz Baked Beans in thermoformed, microwaveable tubs. But the transition is far subtler. Anybody looking for crackers would normally make a beeline for the biscuit section, yet they are now co-existing with ham and cheese as part of snack solutions such as Dairy Lee Lunchables.

There is now a blurring of boundaries where a lot of ambient products are presented as fresh products. With introduction of MAP, oxygen scavengers and sophisticated closure and sealing technologies there may be increasingly less separating a long-life ambient product with fresh overtones and a genuine fresh product in a chiller cabinet.

While packaging technology may enable this leap between the two environments, evocations of lush Italian hillsides that keep customers loyal to pasta sauce brands in the ambient aisles will have a tougher time against own-label products that radiate the perception of freshness.

Nick Dorman, managing director – product of design agency Blue Marlin explains that the supermarket drive for freshness – from the field to the shelves – means that own-label traditionally has an edge over branded products in the chiller cabinet.

“Own-label’s big thing is freshness and the chiller cabinet is an extension of that freshness. If you’re a brand you’ve got to really stand out and compete against the own-label.”

Added to this challenge is the research that says consumers spend the least amount of time by the chiller cabinet.

The question Mr Dormon poses to brand managers seeking to shift from ambient to chilled sectors is how are you going to project a freshness that isn’t really there?

“From a brand point of view you have to lean on the assets that you have and then you have to think of something other than freshness because it’s very difficult to go in there against own-label on fresh ingredients. So it’s a combination of experiences and brand heritage.”

For inspiration on how to combine a ‘fresh’ message with product experience it may be worth looking to Marks and Spencer – pioneer of the ready-meal and destination shop for chilled foods.

Rather than rely on the luxury of being an own-label brand with no in-store competitors it has taken this opportunity to adopt cutting-edge packaging technology along with directional product development.

Says M&S packaging technologist Dr Helene John: “We have about 4000 lines in the food sector and a massive development programme. We’re not a supermarket. We are purely own-label which gives us a certain strength in that we control how a product is packaged, the look of the product and its quality.”

In the 1980s, this vantage point led to development work between food suppliers and packaging companies to produce a duo-ovenable tray. The flexibility to choose between the oven or microwave was the initial step innovation that was required to produce chilled foods as we know them today.

Its more recent product developments in the chiller cabinet, including Café Culture, Steam Cuisine and the Tapas Selection range of ready-meals are responding to customer demands for adventurous ingredients delivered in an uncomplicated format.

“Customers want a wider range of foods. There are more single house-holds and people tend to entertain more at home. We are seeing a move away from the traditional foods to more entertainment foods which are table presentable.

“They might be packed in ceramic or glass bowls. People are much more open to tapas style foods and there is a wider appreciation of food from different countries.”

With quality and freshness essentially being the M&S brand, packaging is designed to allow products to sell themselves. There is increased importance placed on clarity and transparency in plastics packs says Ms John.

Consistency in graphics quality is also crucial to communicate the brand message across all the meal variants and M&S works with an approved list of printed packaging suppliers to achieve consistency. There is no list for non-printed packaging but suppliers must be IS0 9000 registered and BRC IOP accredited.

Packaging developments are focused on improving convenience and the search for simple easy-open devices is backed by ergonomics studies into the aging population.

It may not be music to suppliers’ ears, but high on the M&S wish list is to cut down on tooling development times.

“It’s a real opportunity for differentiation between packaging suppliers,” says Ms John. “A great number of our suppliers are already using CAD and there has been significant improvement in lead times. I just think we need to further that and we are discussing how to reduce lead times with a number of suppliers.”

With no other brands to compete against and an established brand message, it appears M&S can get away with regular shaped packs that perhaps require less emphasis on time-consuming creative tooling. For brand owners aiming to reposition their ambient products into the chiller cabinet, the advice is quite the opposite.

Says director of Design Bridge Structure Nick Verebelyi: “There is a potential to add value to brands through structure. I think the packs that are on offer are entirely functional at the moment.

“The most interesting one I’ve seen has been a chicken shaped clam pack by Huhtamaki. It’s an industry populated by unbranded solutions – its size ranges rather than structural packaging that communicates beyond the purely practical. I think there is a huge opportunity for bespoke shape as long as it’s added value as part of an entire proposition.”

Design Bridge has recently finished work on a project for dairy food manufacturer Glanbia that aimed to create a kids lunchbox brand with play value. With product components along the similar lines to Dairy Lee Lunchables, the Munchsters Lunch-pods brand is designed to stand out through a silver recloseable pod shaped pack.

The cheeky Munchsters cartoon characters, also developed by Design Bridge, feature on a wrapper which can be removed after use, allowing children to customise the container and re-fill and with their own small objects. The brand characters are further brought to life with a dedicated web site.

“We wanted to create after-life with the design which is an opportunity that I think is often missed,” comments Mr Verebelyi. “The lunchbox market is very generic in its packaging. Our basic needs are being met but we also want entertainment.”

Adding interaction to a meal proposition appears to be the way forward, particularly where the ready-meal is concerned.

Says Mr Verebelyi: “Meal constitu-ent parts are becoming increasingly relevant. I see that this has implications to the way that stores are laid out and the way food is sold. I think there should be a way of selling the component parts of the meal together with fresh ingredients sold against meats.

“It seems to me that the growth in self-service fixtures such as salad bars are pointing the way towards far more autonomy that can’t really be offered by the pre-packed ready-meals. Apart from anything else, the size is never right and there is something very synthetic and industrial about them.”

Retail concepts such as Rocket, a fresh ingredients franchise spawned by Unilever, are already bridging the gap between choice and convenience. Here customers are able to pick a meal from a menu and take home the right ingredients and portions for cooking.

“My ultimate dream is the salad bar/carvery approach where one will be able to visit a far extended meal bar where you can select yourself the fresh ingredients and mix and match. But then provide the fridge life at home by being able to effectively seal – maybe even gas flush in-store.”

Mr Verebelyi is not the only member of the design community to hold this vision. Nick Dormon agrees that choice backed by technology will be the future of the chiller cabinet.

“At the moment instant cooking is being solved by ready-meals. But most people want simple food they can cook themselves. That’s getting back to our ideal of walking through a market. It is coming full circle and technology is allowing us to do that. Packaging is the thing that will create the whole.”

Mr Dormon is currently working on projects at Blue Marlin with self-contained ambient brands moving into chilled. He sees the answer lying in ways of building the brand connection between the two sectors.

“An awful lot can be done structurally to make brands more obvious. In chiller cabinets you look down on the foods – so creating visual presence from that perspective is vitally important.

It could be ways of physically bringing products together with packaging to create a jigsaw effect.”

If any more evidence is required that the ready-meal concept is set to significantly broaden its horizons, then a sneak preview into M&S’ direction is telling.

Without giving too much away, Helene John hints that the future for customers does indeed hold far more autonomy.

“The biggest driver will be introducing a level of involvement for the customer without cooking from scratch. It’s about bringing different ingredients together in composite packs.

This would be an extension of our interchangeable ranges trialled over the last six months that offer different aspects of main meals to give a mix and match approach.”