What started out as a straightforward plan to promote back-to-school meals has quickly grown to become an August tradition for ConAgra Foods and H-E-B .
Now in its third year, the Meal Maker Challenge recruits bloggers who, in turn, enlist the support of their followers as they try to outdo one another in developing quick, family-friendly recipes that use select ConAgra products.
This year, the month-long contest rounded up 10 Texas-based food bloggers chosen by the retailer. The featured products changed weekly: Egg Beaters (week 1), followed by Hebrew National Hot Dogs (week 2), Peter Pan Peanut Butter (week 3) and a Chef Boyardee canned pasta product (week 4).
“Back to school is a key time when looking at ConAgra’s brands, like our Peter Pan peanut butter, our Hunt’s snack packs,” said Julie Gressett, the ConAgra national account manager assigned to H-E-B. “We have some big brands that tie in well to this time of year.”
The pairing of ConAgra and H-E-B created multiple consumer contact points. The contest was plugged through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, as well as online through a microsite linked to the H-E-B home page. It received prominent mentions on ConAgra’s The Dish, a website created specifically to provide recipe and cooking tips to food bloggers. Weekly circulars and ConAgra ads in H-E-B’s in-house magazine Texas Life added a print element.
In stores, the featured ConAgra products are discounted as part of the H-E-B Combo Loco Deals program, which bundles a free companion product with purchase of a promoted item. So, during the week the bloggers were developing recipes using Peter Pan Peanut Butter, the Combo Loco Deal included a free jar of H-E-B store-brand jelly.
“It really helps to make that connection with the shopper when she or he needs it, when they’re looking for options, for recipes and things like that,” said Brenda Hazell, ConAgra shopper marketing manager who worked on the contest. “It also allows us to position our products as key players during this season, and the different things they can do with them.”
A Growing Relationship
Most of the activity was centered on the bloggers. Many retailers have adopted marketing strategies that include these independent brand representatives, but it’s not without risk, observed Hazell.
“It can be a good marketing tactic, but it’s tricky. People have their own opinions,” she said. “They can say what they choose to say.”
The Meal Maker Challenge is structured in such a way that both ConAgra and H-E-B can avoid such pitfalls.
“The emphasis is about sharing recipe ideas through people who are more focused on trying to offer solutions and helpful ideas to people,” Hazell said.
Stephen Ames, an Austin, Texas-based blogger known as Spatula Dad, was one of the 10 contestants in this year’s event. He called the growing relationship between bloggers and manufacturers “critical” in this day and age.
“The manufacturers bring the product and the brand, and the bloggers bring the grassroots fan base,” he said. “It gives me credentials. It’s nice to have a blue chip, A-team company partnering with you on a story that you’re telling.”
The contest culminated with the selection of two finalists, chosen by the number of votes they received from their blog followers. Those who voted became eligible to win a gift basket provided to the bloggers containing various ConAgra products, kitchenware and a $25 H-E-B gift card.
On Sept. 22, bloggers Evin Cooper, the stay-at-home mom behind Food Good Laundry Bad, and Marina John, who runs the Energizer Bunnies Mommy Reports, faced off at the Cooking Connections demo kitchen at a San Antonio H-E-B store. Each had a helper and were required to make three different recipes using the featured ingredients.
Cooper made Egg Beater pizza pops, sloppy Hebrew National hot dogs and shotgun wedding soup with Chef Boyardee, but it was John who won the final with her Fruit and Nut Breakfast Roll Surprise. The ingredients included Peter Pan peanut butter, sliced Gala apples, chopped walnuts, dates, cinnamon and honey, all wrapped up in H-E-B-brand buttermilk biscuit dough.
John’s snack, as well as other recipes and a recap of the contest, will be featured on ConAgra’s Ready Set Eat, another companion website that addresses the convenient family dinner dilemma.
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