Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Hold the ketchup, pass the ranch! | Advertising Age

When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was launching her since abandoned presidential campaign in Iowa in February, her talk at the Airliner restaurant in Iowa City got photobombed by a 22-year-old college student elbowing her way through a small crowd gathered around the bar. “Sorry, I’m just going to get some ranch,” the student said in a video, which was captured on the phone of a CNN reporter and went viral.

That student, Hanna Kinney, dubbed “Ranch Girl,” was designated by her friends to get a bottle of ranch dressing for dipping pizza during a Bible study at the restaurant that night, in part because she’s a big lifelong ranch fan. There may be two lessons to draw here. One, Democrats could have simplified debate vetting by eliminating any candidate who couldn’t beat ranch dressing for the hearts and minds of Iowa college students. Two, ranch is a force to be reckoned with, particularly among millennials and Gen Z folks who increasingly use it where prior generations used ketchup. 

According to Clorox Co., marketer of category-leading Hidden Valley Ranch, 70 percent of ranch usage now happens beyond the salad bowl – including for dipping pizza, French fries and popcorn. Ranch has also displaced bleu cheese as the dipping sauce of choice for wings, says Jacquie Klein, director of the brand studio that oversees Hidden Valley marketing. 

Playing to the trend, Hidden Valley rolled out a line of dips earlier this year. And in 2018 it launched a new campaign with an ad from McGarryBowen showing a guy drinking ranch with a straw and the tagline: “HVR: You either love it or you REALLY love it.”

Count Kinney among the latter --  “super fans” who drive much of Hidden Valley Ranch's growth and an even bigger share of its social media campaign to “unleash more food joy on the world,” Klein says. The brand quickly signed Kinney for an appearance at a National Ranch Day celebration in Las Vegas in March alongside a made-for-Instagram 24-foot-high bottle of ranch – the biggest container yet for a brand that earlier had rolled out a ranch fountain for a Super Bowl promotion and a giant Magnum Bottle that holds 1.75 liters for the holidays last year. At the event, someone even bathed in ranch dressing.

Hidden Valley has come out with some kind of oddball holiday collection the past two years, generating 3 billion social and other media impressions in total, Klein says. The brand also got some traction on Twitter after the Instagram site Pop Tart A Day posted an image of a ranch-flavored Pop-Tart, USA Today reported.

“Ranch is a rising iconic flavor in food and culture today,” she says. “It’s found on more than half of restaurant menus and in 75 percent of homes in the U.S. It’s really embedded in our culture. We have more than 5 million Twitter conversations a year. We always love to see Hidden Valley Ranch fountains at weddings and mini-kegs at backyard barbecues.”

While ranch has been stealing usage from ketchup, the growth goes beyond that, Klein says. “Ranch is a mega-flavor in food that’s found across the store, where ketchup is really bound by its bottle in the condiments aisle.”

Indeed, ketchup has had struggles for decades. Salsa surpassed ketchup in U.S. retail sales in 1992, and since mayonnaise is still bigger than ketchup, Heinz entered that business last year. 

Though IRI declines to break out the ranch share of U.S. salad dressing sales, category leader Hidden Valley had around $550 million in sales in Clorox’s just-completed fiscal year ended June 30 and has had 18 consecutive quarters of share growth. Nielsen data from Bernstein Research show Hidden Valley with a 51.1 percent share of the ranch segment for the four weeks ended Aug. 10, and that suggests ranch as a whole is a roughly $1 billion retail business in the U.S., ahead of the $833 million IRI cites for ketchup. 

Ranch has been growing for years (even as salad dressings broadly have been flat to down). Hidden Valley sales grew around 3 percent for the last 12 months, per Bernstein. Ketchup has been flat for the most part in recent years, per IRI, though the category did get a short-lived 6 percent sales bump last year, driven by new entries from Unilever’s Hellmann’s and McCormick Foods’ French’s in retaliation for Heinz moving into mayonnaise and mustard.

Ranch’s popularity comes despite being a relative newcomer compared to other dressings and condiments. Former California plumber-turned-dude- ranch operator Steve Henson developed the dressing in 1954, then started selling packaged versions in stores. Clorox bought the ranch in 1972 and began taking it national. 

Though there is actually a ranch-themed restaurant – the Twisted Ranch in St. Louis, Missouri -- one place still you generally don’t see ranch is in condiment bottles alongside Heinz ketchup at restaurants.  Clorox, which doesn't have an extensive foodservice business like some of its condiment rivals, has yet to put much effort into getting tabletop squeeze bottles or single-serve packets of Hidden Valley into restaurants.

Kinney has since graduated from Iowa and is on a merchandising and marketing internship at one of the largest foodservice sites in the world – Disney World in Orlando – though she says she isn’t working to get ranch bottles onto tabletops.

She also admits more than a passing interest in aioli. “Everyone and their mom anymore wants to put it on their sandwiches and dip their fries in it,” she says. “But ranch will still always be my No. 1 condiment.”

Her viral moment may have been great for ranch, and by extension, category leader Hidden Valley. But maybe not so much  in the short term. A CNN report on "Ranch Girl" ended with the revelation that Kinney was hoping for an endorsement gig -- from distant rival Wish-Bone.

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