Hansells Food Group began life in New Zealand when its founder Fred Willets came to the conclusion that his sister, ‘Aunt Betty' Cole, made the best steamed puddings.
He enlisted the help of food scientist Ross MacKenzie, the company's current CEO, and in 1996 the company, then known as Old Fashioned Foods, began producing Aunt Betty’s steamed puddings.
Skip forward to the present day and the company is one of New Zealand’s top 10 food businesses and a leading exporter. It has three manufacturing facilities in New Zealand, offices in Australia, Canada and the UK, and it also sells its products in South Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.
It now operates under the Hansells name, having acquired the 75-year-old company in 2006.
The Sydney office’s main function to date has been the import of Hansells’ diverse portfolio of food and beverage products, which includes brands such as Alfa One rice bran oil, Aunt Betty’s steamed puddings, and Vitafresh kids’ drinks.
The portfolio could be described as solid, if not ground-breakingly innovative. However, the first products developed by Hansells’ Australian team are currently being launched and their positioning, branding and execution are about to make everything else in the soup category look old fashioned.
The ambient soup category in Australia is dominated by stalwarts Heinz, Campbells and Baxters for tinned; and Valcorp Fine Foods-owned La Zuppa and Continental for cup-a-soups.
In line with the broader industry’s focus on ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’, the majority of growth in the soup sector has been located in the chilled aisle. However, Heinz’s Squeeze & Stir soup sachets and La Zuppa’s recent extension into pouches show that the ambient category is not immune to these trends.
Having said that, it’s also fair to say that none of these companies are reinventing the wheel with their new product development for soups, and Mediterranean flavours and traditional ‘homely’ branding remain the mainstay of the sector.
Hansells’ King Traditional Soup brand, which is sold in Costco in Australia, is very much in keeping with this, but the company realised it had the potential to increase traction in the local market by emphasising the soup’s key point of difference.
While other cup-a-soups comprise powdered or dried ingredients and flavour enhancers, Hansells’ King soup products are made up of ‘real ingredients’ in a wet format. What began as a simple product refresh evolved into something much larger – and a completely different brand.
Brand manager Charli Molloy says there were a number of sector insights that led to the genesis of Hansells’ All Natural Soups range.
“Our main competitors [in the soup category] rely on western flavours – things like tomato, pumpkin and hearty vegetable soups – and we definitely didn’t want to compete with them on that level, but with Australia’s rising multicultural society, an increase in overseas travel, and our booming economy, people are becoming more worldly when it comes to flavours,” Molloy says.
“We wanted to give consumers the opportunity to enjoy an all-natural product, combined with these great authentic flavours from other countries.”
Molloy worked closely with one of Hansells’ contract manufacturers in Thailand to sift out any ingredients that might sully the new brand’s ‘all natural’ positioning and to develop recipes that are inspired by traditional flavours – not from western cuisines but from Mexico, Morocco, Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
The new range includes Laksa, Hot & Sour, Wonton and Tom Yum in a cup-a-soup format, and Laksa, Wonton, Miso, Chicken & Corn, Vegetable Tagine, and Tortilla soups in a pouch.
While some companies might shy away from discussing overseas manufacturing, Molloy is comfortable on the subject.
“We have a really good relationship with the supplier and they have a strong reputation for great quality products and supply a lot of companies in the US and UK,” she says.
Besides, she adds, Hansells wouldn’t be able to offer the soups at the price point it is, if they’d been produced in the local market.
As it turns out, the obstacle that Molloy believes will be hardest to overcome is that of the ambient product aisle itself, as the common assumption is that food in the chilled aisle is fresher and more natural.
Without having a bottomless marketing budget to challenge this perception, Hansells needed to create pouches and cups for the soups that would stand out from the pervasive soup-branding norms and shout out its ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ credentials.
Molloy, who cut her teeth at Gu Puds, the company that transformed the UK dessert category, says Hansells’ brief for its contract-pack designer Dan Stevens was to create pared back, yet bold designs that conveyed the soups' all-natural positioning and other ‘call outs’ at a glance.
According to Molloy, the designs are restrained, but they have a quirky and stylish look that helps the soups stand out on the shelf. The pouches and cups are printed to resemble a brown paper bag – the kind of thing you might pick up from your local deli.
This style, she says, allows the ingredients to shine out as the hero of the products. For example, the main motif on the Morocco-inspired soup is a silhouette of a pepper (a key ingredient) and stamped in the centre of that, in the only colour on the pack, is the product variant. Above that in a smaller font, it says ‘all natural’ – the brand’s name and its major selling point.
“We tried to choose one bold ingredient from each recipe that was representative of the product and used that imagery,” Molloy says.
Interestingly, the Hansells’ logo is the least obtrusive element on the pack front. Molloy says this was a conscious decision, as Hansells is not especially well known in Australia.
“We’re not an established household name in this market, so there was no value in making the company name more dominant,” she says.
Molloy points out that women are the main consumers of soup, viewing it as a light meal alternative, especially the 20- to 40-year-old bracket. The different on-pack call outs – from ‘100 per cent natural’ and ‘99 per cent fat free’ to ‘dairy free’ and ‘gluten free’ – all provide core information for this demographic, showing how the range is carefully aligned with major food trends.
The range also incorporates heartier ingredients like chickpeas and beans, to provide a more substantial meal to appeal to a male demographic.
The All Natural Soups are initially being sold exclusively at Woolworths across the country, and in a major coup for Hansells’ Australian office, it has just been confirmed that the range will also be launched in New Zealand and Canada, and possibly the UK.
Molloy says the launch is a real test for the Australian market and, if successful, it could take on more brand-development projects, or extensions of the ‘All Natural’ brand.
“We’re up against big competitors so we have to be a bit smart about how we compete,” Molloy says. “In terms of strategy, we’ll be doing a lot of in-store sampling, because we really believe in the products and think they’ll speak for themselves, so word of mouth will be quite powerful.”
Hansells may not have the big bucks of its competitors to spend on the launch, but it may well have struck gold with the All Natural Soups brand.