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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Bread Maker Eyes Roll for Northeast

Northeasterners have their Italian bread, Jewish rye, Middle Eastern pita and Indian naan. But now, a Southern California brand wants them all to go Hawaiian.

After eyeing the Northeast’s bread-loving market for years, traditionally low-key King’s Hawaiian Bakery West Inc. in Torrance has embarked on its first-ever ad campaign, pushing its sweet, squishy dinner rolls nationwide, with a special focus on the most densely populated section of the country.

King’s Hawaiian rolls are eaten in nearly half of West Coast homes, but on the opposite side of the country, less than 10 percent of households even know the brand exists, according to company research. To change that, King’s Hawaiian has launched an aggressive advertising and marketing campaign with the hopes of potentially doubling its sales.

The effort kicked off a year ago with television commercials, publicity tours with a celebrity chef, product placements in award shows and reality TV programs, print ads and even signage at Boston’s Fenway Park and New York’s Citi Field.

King’s Hawaiian is shelling out big for the campaign, with $10 million spent just on TV time, said Erick Dickens, its vice president of marketing.

“The reason we decided to go big was to quickly address one of the brand’s primary weaknesses: low awareness,” he said. “We selected what I believe to be the most-effective broad-awareness drivers – TV and celebrity endorsement – to accelerate the brand’s awareness with a national audience.”

King’s Hawaiian knows it’s up against some hefty competition from dinner roll brands such as Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe and Sara Lee, which are already entrenched in Northeastern supermarkets. But Santa Clarita food marketing expert Steve Stallman said the rolls’ sweet flavor is unique and the exotic name sends a pleasant message that should resonate in the Northeast as well as it does in California.

“It’s not directly fighting the competition and price wars,” Stallman said. “And there’s certainly not any big name in sweet bread. I think they have a good chance.”

Rising bread

King’s Hawaiian popularity and success has come largely from word of mouth.

The company won’t disclose revenue figures, but confirmed annual sales of just under $300 million (in the $1.9 billion national fresh roll category) as reported last year by trade publisher Food Industry News, and added that so far this year, sales are up 30 percent from what they were at this time a year ago.

Its unit sales increased by 7 percent in the 52 weeks ended June 15, Food Industry reported, enough to supplant Horsham, Pa.’s Bimbo Bakeries USA as the category leader.

Feeding that growth, its rolls, bread and buns have come to be purchased by about 40 percent of households along the West Coast, Dickens said. But in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, that number is only about 8 percent.

And that’s despite the fact that King’s Hawaiian has been selling nationwide for a decade through Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and grocery chain Stop & Shop Supermarket Co.

“It’s a heavily saturated market,” Dickens said. “There are plenty of dinner-roll eaters; they’re just not eating King’s Hawaiian.”

To get a foothold, King’s Hawaiian plans to put its dinner rolls – the company’s best-selling product – in front of all consumers on all media fronts. It feels if it can just get people to try them, passionate fans will spread the word and demand will follow, just as it did on the West Coast.

Thinking its rolls, hamburger and hotdog buns are a good fit for family gatherings, King’s Hawaiian is targeting sports fans and moms with its new campaign.

The company, which has paid for ad space at Fenway Park since last season, chose Hawaiian-born Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino to star in its first national television commercial, which started airing in the fall. This year, King’s Hawaiian is also advertising at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and in Mets game programs.

The company’s new TV ad airing this year is aiming for moms.

“Where our commercials come from is our consumers and how they use the product, and why they use the product and their funny stories,” said Courtney Taira, who manages consumer relationships for the bakery and whose grandfather, Robert, started King’s Hawaiian in Hilo, Hawaii, in 1950.

The King’s Hawaiian campaign also includes TV commercials and product placements during the People’s Choice Awards, the Oscars and Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” The company also sponsored a promotional tour with celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia and has sent a food truck to events including last month’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

The hope, Dickens said, is that all the different kinds of advertising will get people to try King’s Hawaiian. Once they do, he’s confident customers will start asking for the company’s products at their local grocers and distribution will follow.

“You really just have to get in front of people and then it will become more common,” he said.

Results

So far, the strategy appears to be paying off. Brand awareness is up nationwide and sales have grown by double digits since the ad blitz started, Dickens said.

King’s Hawaiian is already prepared for the extra demand. The company, which for years baked all of its bread at its Torrance headquarters, opened a plant in Oakwood, Ga., in 2011 and has since expanded into a second plant in the city. King’s Hawaiian last year borrowed $135 million from GE Capital, in part to further expand capacity.

Taira said King’s Hawaiian is very much a family business – her father, Mark, is chief executive – and has always been conservative in its planning and spending. That’s why the company waited to start a national ad campaign until it had the production capability to meet national demand.

That conservative approach, she said, will help ensure the company continues for generations of Taira descendants.

“We are not looking out 10 years, but for a really long time,” she said.

With the company stepping out onto a more national stage, Taira said her family – which has studiously avoided the spotlight for years – is learning to enjoy more attention.

She said her phone was blowing up with calls from across the country once TV ads started airing last year.

“I never thought we would ever get this big,” she said.

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