‘Premium’ Hot Pockets? Nestle Lures Foodies Into the Frozen Food Aisle

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Courtesy of Nestle USA

The new Pepperoni Pizza Hot Pocket, now with "signature pepperoni" and "garlic buttery seasoned crust."

Can frozen, microwavable, handheld sandwich-like pastries — the kind long associated with the late-night snacking habits of lazy college students — be effectively marketed to grown-ups with grown-up tastes?

Nestle believes they can. In relaunching Hot Pockets on the occasion of the brand’s 30th anniversary this week, the food giant hopes to change the perception of the oft-maligned frozen food and to appeal to the demographic everyone is after: millennials.

The new Hot Pockets include ingredients like hickory ham, angus beef, and white-meat chicken inside a variety of seasoned crusts, including “crispy buttery” crust, croissant, and pretzel bread.

Over the past two years, the brand exec’s have been working with chefs and bakers, visiting New York City restaurants, and asking consumers about the foods they’re into, most notably young adult males, who make up 60% of Hot Pocket consumers.

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“Their food IQ is so high today,” says Hot Pockets’ marketing director Daniel Jhung. “Two-thirds say they consider themselves foodies and they talk about being into prosciutto and angus beef. I was shocked at how knowledgeable they were about food. I know I didn’t talk about food like that when I was 21.”

Hot Pockets is following a broader trend by going after consumers who are drawn to the appeal of fresher, healthier, higher-quality ingredients. In recent years even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have tried to capture this shift in consumer tastes, having been pushed in that direction by so-called fast casual restaurants.

But Hot Pockets has an especially difficult challenge in this regard given the brand’s long-standing identity as a fast, easy way to satisfy a serious case of the munchies — nutritional values be damned. “There are a lot of perceptions that Hot Pockets are made in some black box with mystery meat,” acknowledges Jhung.

To fight that reputation, the company has launched a new advertising campaign featuring Food Network personality Jeff Mauro, who gives viewers an inside look at how Hot Pockets are made. Another ad shows Hot Pockets “chefs” lovingly slicing into juicy cuts of angus beef and hickory ham. On its redesigned website, the company is using phrases like “Made with real cheese” and “More premium in your pocket.”

The company also wants to make sure consumers know what’s inside each pocket, so it’s prominently showing the new ingredients on the packaging, along with large photos of the pockets cut in half.

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Many frozen foods companies have made efforts in the last several years to adapt to changing consumer preferences. Nestle now even suggests that shoppers supplement its frozen meals with salad or fruit. It’s also started a partnership between its Lean Cuisine brand and Fresh Express, which makes prepackaged salads. Partly as a result, classic frozen foods have remained remarkably resilient even as consumers demand higher quality and healthier options.

But Hot Pockets haven’t quite kept pace. First marketed in 1983, the brand saw double-digit growth for years as frozen foods and TV dinners became a staple in American homes. Lately, however, the company has experienced much slower growth. According to business analyst firm IRI, Hot Pockets sales in 2012 were up 2.5% over the year before.

Hot Pockets execs are hoping the reboot will spur growth — and draw more foodies into the frozen food aisle.