More popular than ever, the bacon category continues to innovate

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Bacon plays a larger than life role in the lives of many consumers – it’s more than just a food for them, it’s a symbol, a feeling and an experience.

“Consumers often cook bacon for family and friends and take great pride in delivering the best quality experience to those who matter most to them,” said Jenny Rechner, brand manager for Hormel Black Label Bacon, based in Austin, Minnesota. “Throughout our research, consumers also told us that bacon was a comfort food for them. Especially in the past two years of the pandemic, consumers have told us they seek out bacon as a “mental health food” that can improve their overall well-being.

A number of trends are impacting the category in 2022.

“Bacon is more popular than ever,” said Drew Calvert, vice president of prepared pork for Niman Ranch, Northglenn, Colo., who noted the company is seeing growth in five key category trend areas.

“The first is a claims-driven trend, with consumers seeking brand transparency, as well as sustainable choices and cruelty-free animal care choices, and we find these are of particular interest to high-end shoppers who have tend to have larger basket sizes,” she said.

Health-conscious consumers are also looking for clean ingredients in their bacon choices, especially those without antibiotics or added sugar.

“You see these high-protein diets continuing to grow in popularity, and sugar-free bacon is an attractive, flavor-packed ingredient that these diets are leaning towards,” Calvert said.

A third trend Niman Ranch is seeing is the non-traditional cut of bacon, such as Canadian bacon, which appeals to a health-conscious consumer looking for a smoky-tasting breakfast meat, Calvert said.

“Different hardwood smokes are another trend. Consumers are really looking for something different in the category and finding the ones that fit the bill. Having an applewood or hickory undertone allows them to experience a pleasant, sweet flavor.

Bacon as an ingredient is also a trend, such as the addition of bacon in sausages. For example, Niman Ranch recently developed a bacon breakfast sausage that is a link but also has the flavor of bacon.

Convenience bacon has seen significant growth in recent years, including fully cooked bacon and microwave bacon.

“Many consumers find these options convenient to use on sandwiches, salads or eggs,” Rechner said. “Consumers are also busier than ever, and especially in smaller households, these options come in handy when they’re short on time.”

Hormel offers a wide range of products in the convenience bacon area, including Hormel Black Label Fully Cooked Bacon (regular and family options), Hormel Black Label Microwave Ready Bacon and Natural Choice Fully Cooked Bacon.

Mel Coleman Jr. of Coleman Natural Foods, Westminster, Colorado, noted that consumers are demanding regulatory changes demanding a supply of higher quality, more humanely raised meat, and the company is demanding that farmers raise their pigs at 100% gestation and whelping crate free, resulting in healthier, stronger animals that can display natural behaviors throughout their lives.

“The pandemic has made consumers more aware of their health and well-being,” he said. “Buyers are more interested in where their food comes from as well as, in the case of meat, how the livestock are raised and the meats are processed.”

With all that in mind, the company recently transitioned its uncured applewood smoked bacon offering to be sugar-free.

“For Coleman Natural customers on diets that advocate sugar reduction, this product meets those needs, without sacrificing the high-quality flavor we’re known for,” Coleman said. “Plus, we never use artificial ingredients or preservatives in our processed items – just simple, clean, great-tasting products consumers can feel confident about.”

Francis Yupangco, executive director of marketing for New Angus Steak Bacon of Telford, Pennsylvania, noted that consumer demand for protein alternatives like turkey and beef bacon has grown by double digits over the past two years.

“In 2021 alone, unit sales of beef bacon grew more than 15% nationally and continue to grow in 2022,” he said. “Our consumer research indicated that consumers 45 and under purchase turkey bacon eight times more frequently than consumers over 45. Additionally, the same consumers said they were very willing to try other types of bacon meat, especially beef bacon.”

Initially, shortages in the pork bacon supply chain led to a surge in beef bacon sales. However, as consumers tried the product, sales continued to grow and show no signs of slowing down.

“In addition, many consumers do not eat pork and are trying to reduce their consumption of pork bacon and have opted to replace it with beef bacon,” Yupangco said. “In the beef bacon category, we have our traditional real wood smoked beef bacon, which has seen unit sales growth of 80% over the past 12 months. We also introduced Angus Steak Angus Beef Bacon in January to expand our range of beef bacon and the consumer response has been surprisingly successful.

Godshall’s has also expanded its product line with the introduction of its Organic and Applewood No Antibiotics Ever products. The company also completed a complete rebranding, new website and new packaging with key claims to appeal to this key consumer group.

Impact of the pandemic

During the pandemic, when storage was important to customers, many businesses saw an increase in bulk packaging.

“They’re looking for value in this space, and bulk packs are especially useful when cooking for a large gathering with family and friends,” Rechner said. “Some consumers even portion it out so they can cook smaller amounts at a time and always have bacon on hand for later.”

In March 2020, total sales for the Breakfast Meat category were up 110% year over year according to IRI data, driven by strong consumer demand and people buying multiple packages. This strong demand continued throughout 2020 and into 2021, with sales for the category consistently growing 20-30% year over year.

Marketing measures

It’s not uncommon to see stores put all bacon items in one refrigerated set, but savvy grocers have managed to mix them up.

“We’ve had success with bunker displays on raw bacon, as well as plug displays on fully cooked bacon, which don’t require refrigeration,” Rechner said. “While bacon is usually on consumers’ grocery lists, these displays pique their interest when they’re looking for a special. Brands are also able to capture new buyers through impulse purchases and potentially retain them if they have a good experience.

Since Godshall’s Angus Bacon Steak is a new product, the company has invested heavily in in-store sampling, social media influencers, targeted digital advertising and other channel marketing campaigns.

“Our consumer research indicates that repeat purchase intent is over 80%,” Yupangco said.

When it comes to marketing, Calvert believes that supermarkets should not only look at what’s happening in the store, but also in the digital marketplace.

“Consider digital targeting via geo-targeted ads on social media, but showcasing more than the products,” she said. “Adding claims would make a difference for the consumer. For example, we partner with retailers on these ads and have them target our farmers and our animal welfare commitments. It’s something that major customer demographics appreciate.

Also, in the store, traditional marketing materials such as signage and window stickers are still important, but so are scannable QR codes, which can be linked to recipes or the farmers behind the business.

“We’ve found this helps retailers drive sales and attract more premium shoppers,” Calvert said.

And once the world turns the corner on COVID, sampling is still seen as a great way to bring customers to bacon products.

“Having a brand ambassador who can tell the story at tastings and make personal connections, I think, makes a difference,” Calvert said. “Getting the product back into consumers’ mouths is important.”

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