StarKist brand expands to boost profit


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The StarKist brand has been around for decades, establishing it firmly in U.S. consumers' minds as a reputable tuna product. But management at the Pittsburgh-based seafood company wants to stretch a little to see where the brand can go.

Sardines?

"We're onto something here," insisted Frank Pogue, vice president of marketing and innovation of the company headquartered on the North Shore.

StarKist began a test of its Gourmet Selects Sardines line this summer, putting the product in a mix of stores stretching from Georgia to Texas. The sardines, which sell for about $2.49 per can, could roll out more broadly next year.

Mr. Pogue reports the skinless, boneless sardine fillets -- which he swears are not your father's sardines in a can -- have won over some consumers. "People who have never eaten sardines, they're out there and they're asking for coupons," he said.

Sardines are only part of the company's latest push to challenge the tuna sector's long-term issues. Namely, how to stop Americans from seeing tuna as a commodity in a can that should be cheap; how to diversify into products beyond tuna; and how to get people to eat more seafood.

The fact that none of those issues is new may be evident in the fact that StarKist has had three different owners in little more than a decade, as the tuna business sometimes seemed easier to exit than to change. South Korean parent Dongwon Group has owned StarKist since 2008 but has changed chief executives more than once.

Tuna is among the nation's most popular fish. The National Marine Fisheries Institute ranks canned tuna as second on a list of the top 10 most consumed seafood in 2011, ranking only behind shrimp.

Sardines don't even make the list.

Still, the relatively low-profile fish could open up a bigger pool of opportunities for the Gourmet Selects line.

Mr. Pogue said other species and different flavors could eventually be included. "The whole deal here is where can StarKist play? Where does the consumer allow us?" he said.

The company's efforts to reinvigorate sales extend to its core tuna products. Mr. Pogue noted the overall category has been sleepy but he said that's starting to turn around and StarKist has hung onto its leadership position with about 40 percent of the U.S. market.

Total canned tuna sales hit about $1.68 billion in the 52 weeks ended March 24, according to IRI, a Chicago-based marketing research firm that tracks sales through U.S. supermarkets, drugstores and other large retailers. Dongwon's share was $686 million, followed by Bumble Bee Foods at $468 million. Other significant players include private label suppliers and Chicken of the Sea.

StarKist has been repackaging its flavored Tuna Creations line this year -- "That's in test marketing right now," Mr. Pogue said -- to try to get more attention in the grocery store. The single-serve pouches, positioned as a premium product at about $1.79 per pouch, wasn't getting the sales that the company thought they could.

StarKist's research found positioning the line as an ingredient to be used in other recipes wasn't as effective as touting the flavored tuna as a personalized choice for consumers. The company just added a new flavor, Ranch, with the reasoning that ranch dressing is one of the most popular condiments in the country.

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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