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A perfectly healthy global market for sauces

08/12/2021 - François-Xavier Branthôme - Lire en français
Cooking sauces promoted to “premium” status

Boosted by the increase in the number of meals eaten at home, cooking sauces are following the move upmarket of dry pasta. From small newcomer brands to historical pillars, companies are competing in the premium segment, using quality, natural ingredients of controlled origin.

Is the mundane pasta dish becoming a luxury item? The price increase of the average shopping basket has been evident in recent weeks in France, both for dry pasta and for the sauces that accompany it, even before the end-product feels the inflation in the cost of raw materials, which the production/processing sectors would like to see included in the outcome of negotiations with supermarkets in 2022.

According to LSA magazine, after a 15.7% sales boom in 2020, cooking sauces gained another 3.4% in value and 2.9% in volume (monthly activity figures as of October 30, 2021). Growth is being driven both by supply – new brands and delicatessen ranges – and by demand, with consumers looking for diversity to complement a greater number of meals eaten at home.

 The success of sauces to accompany pasta has not weakened and product ranges are going upmarket.

Retail experts refer to a pasta frenzy: “The French have tried more sauces, a fact that has benefited the higher value brands which have been strongly gaining new consumers,” explains Tarek Louadj, NielsenIQ consultant. “So-called premium sauces have risen from 9.9% in 2019 to 11.6% of total pasta sauce sales in 2021, thanks to the addition of 777,000 buyer households.”
Natacha Thévenin, head of category management for Garofalo, a pasta brand from Ebro Foods that launched into sauces in May 2020, explains that many secondary manufacturers have gained a foothold in the “pure premium” segment, making them able to recruit and retain their customers thanks to affordable prices. According to LSA, this pure premium segment has reached 12.5% penetration and a 41% repurchase rate. 
Beyond premium, all cooking sauces to accompany starchy foods expanded their customer base, with penetration rising from 74% in 2019 to 78% in 2020. Cooking aids like pulp, coulis, or passata benefited from the same dynamic, growing from 56.8% in 2019 to 60% in 2020, and further improving their performance by gaining 4% in 2021. The increases are even more impressive for pizza bases and lasagna, which have jumped nearly 15% in volume this year. Industry players are confident, such as Valérie Beauchêne, marketing director for Panzani, who believes that “these habits will remain, even if people go to restaurants a little more in 2022.” For her part, Natacha Thévenin even predicts a growth of 5 to 6% in 2022 within the premium segment, driven by the activity of “small brands” (Florelli, De Cecco, Polli, Petti, Rummo, Italians do it better, Papa Sauce, etc.) which “imprint in the minds of French people a statutory image of Italian flavors.”

Escape from trivialization
But for these creative brands, the requirements to remain in the race are extremely demanding and the margins of maneuver are narrow. So the challenge is to become known, with the need to increase volume without becoming commonplace, by standing out from the usual codes of competition: social networks, street marketing, point of sale advertising, promotions, recipe videos, store events – the concepts and means are numerous.

The origin of the ingredients has become an important criterion. For its Garofalo range, Ebro Foods is increasing the number of PDOs: ricotta, gorgonzola, parmesan, Genovese basil, Voghiera garlic, Calabrian peppers, etc. CEO Alain Locqueneux confirms the success of this approach and announces that the range will be strengthened in 2022 with “all’arrabbiata” tomato caviars and leccino olives. “Italianity” is also the driving force behind Rummo's progress, and new packaging, inspired by that of its artisanal pasta products, now mentions the Italian origin of vegetables and meats and the DOP (PDO in Italian) labels for cheeses and basil. The distributor of the Rummo brand is relying on this argument “to reproduce in sauces what we have achieved in pasta.”

This pasta-sauce synergy, systematically and successfully exploited by Barilla, has notably contributed to the rise in popularity of pesto. The example speaks for itself: still unknown a few years ago, this small segment has grown from EUR 34.3 million in 2017 to nearly EUR 75 million in 2021. According to NielsenIQ, it gained 694,000 buying households in 2020 and 305,000 more in 2021, up 2.9 market share points compared to 2019, a performance all the more remarkable for the fact that pesto is 2.2 times more expensive than the average pasta sauce. In fact, the Italian group will invest EUR 30 million in pesto production at its Rubbiano plant by 2023, and has been “communicating heavily on this strategic segment, on television and at points of sale, around the freshness of basil grown a few kilometers from the plant, in a context of sustainable agriculture since this year, as the penetration potential is still above 75%.” At the same time, Barilla is also positioning itself on the “affordable luxury” segment with its Vero Gusto range, based on selected ingredients (datterini tomatoes, Ligurian PDO basil, taggiasche olives, Calabrian peppers), with no preservatives, no artificial flavors and no added sugars.

Along with this “premiumization,” the use of natural ingredients is gaining ground. For example, Panzani is hunting down pesticides by consolidating its popular brand image and working on its flagship references. This rebranding strategy, initiated in 2018, led the launch of the first “zero pesticide residue” tomato paste, a range of organic sauces, Tuscan tomato coulis and even a pure French beef Bolognese. “Little by little, we are switching all our products to French origin," says Valérie Beauchêne. “The Bolognese segment is tending to decline slightly, but thanks to this reassurance, we are growing, and we are going to pursue this transverse strategy.” This has resulted this year in the launch of the 100% naturally sourced ingredients range, along with a zero-pesticide-residue coulis.

Tomato and the zero-pesticide residue label
It is on the more basic processed tomato products (peeled, pulp, coulis) that this “zero-pesticide residue” label has had the strongest impact. Considered healthier than prepared sauces, these cooking-aid ingredients have increased by 21% in two years, enhanced by this new “label”, as have organic and ready-to-use tomato bases (pre-cooked and seasoned). Mutti, the leader of this segment on the French market for the past three years with a market share of nearly 18% (compared to 47% for private labels), plans to roll out a whole “zero-pesticide residue” range as its Italian growers become certified. “As tomato experts, our goal is to offer superior quality both in our core business and in prepared sauces,” stated marketing director Nicolas Frisch. Launched in 2020, such sauces have benefited from strong impetus this year, notably thanks to the sponsoring of a very popular TV show in France. The brand captured a 1.5% market share of the total sauce market for starchy food bases. Also this year, Mutti launched its pestos, “a breakthrough innovation,” according to Nicolas Frisch. “With a 50% tomato base, they contain 40% less fat and less salt than the market average.” A specific variety of tomato is used, the datterini, naturally sweet, which will be highlighted in 2022 in new recipes with no added sugar and with only PDO ingredients.

Henry John Heinz had the idea of this signature taste in 1834 when he created a tomato cultivar that bears his name. While the range of Heinz sauces launched in 2017 did not have the same success, the American group is pleased with the boom in its enriched bases (already cooked pulps and coulis), whose sales have grown by 24% in two years. “With a 6.6% market share, Heinz is the second contributor to the growth of this segment after Mutti,” says Corinne Wilson, Head of Category Management. “Our enriched bases are performing well because they allow families to prepare nutritionally sound dishes.” After organic bases this year, three new cooking bases will bring inspiration to households in 2022 and make it easier to prepare chili con carne, tacos and other family dishes, via tutorials accessible through QR codes printed on the packaging.

Zapetti (Cofigeo – Raynal et Roquelaure, William Saurin, etc.) has taken a similar approach by opting for metal cans and doypacks, with a broader vocation than sauces in jars. “We are increasingly focusing on a positioning that straddles the line between sauces for starchy foods and cooking aids,” explains Louis Dépinay, Cofigeo's product manager. The company is betting on “more advanced social responsibility commitments and increasingly French sourcing,” and plans to “move upmarket with a goal of 100% French tomatoes and recipes in doypack to move away from mere pasta.” In the spring of 2022, a pesto rosso sauce and a Mexican sauce for fajitas and burritos will arrive.

Market share of major players in the segment of sauces for hot dishes.
Source: NielsenIQ based on manufacturers, monthly activity data to September 2021

Thus, if proven Italianness is a good selling point, the claim of an origin – in a broader sense than that defined by territorial affiliation – is also an authoritative sales argument in this crowded sector. In the highly competitive French sauces market, the Lucien Georgelin brand currently stands out with its Marmande tomato, a common base for 25 product references appreciated by consumers. “This year again, we have grown by 86.4% in volume with more than 1.2 million jars sold,” explains the manufacturer. “While the category is dominated by imported tomato sauces, our recipes produced in southwestern France stand out.”
And new references, voted flavor of the year 2022, are arriving in supermarkets: salsa sauces, tomato sauces with fruit (pineapple tomato, fig tomato, apricot tomato), ratatouille and ketchup.

Sales of sauces have shown staying power
On the other side of the Atlantic, increased sales of sauces, condiments and dressings point to consumers looking to liven up their home cooking.
Like in Europe, sales of condiments, dressings and sauces soared during the height of the pandemic as consumers cooked more meals at home. Many of these items have shown staying power. “Condiments are still the easiest way to add some flavor to your weeknight chicken,” said Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink at WGSN, a trend forecasting company.

Consumers have been seeking out products that allow them to create globally inspired, restaurant-style meals at home, in addition to products that have healthier and plant-based formulations. “The past 18 months have seen dramatic increase in the movement of condiments, sauces and dressing, as expected with more at-home meal prep,” said Todd Templin, vice-president at Dorothy Lane Market, based in Dayton, Ohio.
His company has always catered to home-cooking enthusiasts, he said, but many consumers during the past year have sought to replicate restaurant meals using authentic ingredients from the retailer. Established national brands have performed well, and the company has also seen strong sales gains in its Dorothy Lane Market private label brand in these categories, he said.

 Consumers are buying more restaurant-quality condiments and sauces, which are often authentic, clean-label products. Consumers are discovering new condiments and sauces from TV cooking shows and, increasingly, from social media such as TikTok.

Kara Nielsen says that consumers have gravitated toward restaurant-quality condiments and sauces, which are often authentic, clean-label products with what she described as “very potent flavor profiles.” Consumers also are discovering new condiments and sauces from TV cooking shows and, increasingly, from social media such as TikTok, she said. “Shopping is a discovery conduit, and retailers have an opportunity to showcase newness or to feature different cuisines through marketing across the store, or in their delis,” said Nielsen.

Data from research firm NielsenIQ show that sales of international condiments and sauces have been among the best performers in these categories. Dollar sales of Asian condiments, for example, were up 19.3% for the 52-week period ending September 25, and Latino condiments were up 7.1%. Similarly, sales of Asian sauces were up 8.9%, and Latino sauces were up 4.1%.

Sources: LSA,
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