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Food companies detail 3 big trends in packaged goods right now

Hershey, WK Kellogg, Conagra, and other makers of consumer packaged goods pointed to reasons for optimism at an annual conference.

Major food companies are setting the table for investors.

At the annual Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) conference in Boca Raton, Fla., major packaged food brands with enticing dividend payouts such as PepsiCo (PEP), Coca-Cola (KO), Hershey's (HSY), Conagra Brands (CAG), and Molson Coors (TAP) presented updates to their businesses. Some even offered unexpected twists to their strategies.

The overarching story from food companies centered on a return to normal. After a year of Ozempic fears settling in, a pullback in consumer spending amid higher prices, and a few lingering post-COVID supply chain issues, food execs were eager to move the narrative forward.

Barring any further disruptions in 2024, one common theme from food companies was staying on track, Mizuho Securities managing director John Baumgartner told Yahoo Finance. "This is the first year now in probably three or four where you're sort of operating in normalized conditions. ... So I think [they have] a lot of hope that [they're] going to be in a stable environment."

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With the conference set to run through Friday, here are some other trends Yahoo Finance noticed on the ground.

The Pop-Tarts mascot, Strawberry, poses for a photo before the Pop-Tarts Bowl between the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the Kansas State Wildcats
The Pop-Tarts mascot, Strawberry, poses for a photo before the Pop-Tarts Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023, at Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla. (Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

All eyes on volume

Food execs are focused on volume recovery, as Americans have scaled back how much they're buying because of high prices.

Leaders at General Mills (GIS) and Conagra were "hesitant to comment on whether fiscal 2025 (beginning in June) could be a return to growth in line with long-term targets," Evercore ISI analyst David Palmer wrote in a note to clients from the event.

Hershey and Mondelēz (MDLZ) called out "price pack architecture," which uses different sizes and price points, as a potential growth lever. "We've always capitalized on having different price points, different pack sizes, so that there's accessibility for everyone," Hershey CEO Michele Buck said to the crowd.

Meanwhile, WK Kellogg Co is taking a different approach by providing value through nutrition, an idea that CEO Gary Pilnick believes will stick around.

“We go through different business cycles, we go through different fads, different nutrition demands," Pilnick said. "There's something in [each of those trends] for cereal."

Various types of Kellogg's cereals are pictured at a Ralphs grocery store in Pasadena, California August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Various types of Kellogg's cereals are pictured at a Ralphs grocery store in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 3, 2015. (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

In the fourth quarter, WK Kellogg's revenue decreased by 2.7%, reflecting a 10% volume decline offset by price increases.

Pilnick explained that affordable protein sources open up a new frontier for the cereal maker, which spun off from Kellogg’s snack business last year. In an interview with Yahoo Finance, he reiterated that cereal demand is "durable" as consumers’ preferences change.

Pilnick added that a focus on nutrition also unlocks the premium market for WK Kellogg too, as shown by the company's Eat Your Mouth Off brand, the first cereal of its kind with 22 grams of plant-based protein and zero sugar.

Innovating with new flavors, packaging, and marketing

Reimagining classics was another key strategy execs pointed to.

They held up flavor innovation as one tactic. WK Kellogg's Pilnick said the company saw success bringing back customers with strawberry Frosted Flakes last year and the return of chocolate Frosted Flakes.

J.M. Smucker Co.'s slide from its presentation at CAGNY 2024, teasing a new flavor that will be added to the Uncrustables lineup in September, raspberry.
J.M. Smucker Co.'s slide from its presentation at CAGNY 2024 teased a new flavor that will be added to the Uncrustables lineup in September. (Yahoo Finance)

Meanwhile, J.M. Smucker (SJM) said it's adding raspberry Uncrustables to its lineup in September 2024 as it aims to deliver $800 million in net sales for its Uncrustables brand this fiscal year. The new flavor is part of a larger effort to lean into "a flavor for every day of the week."

The company also announced its JIF peanut butter brand will launch a peanut butter and chocolate spread this summer. "Over 70% of peanut butter buyers are not purchasing a chocolate-flavor spread today, and we anticipate this innovation will be highly incremental to the brand," J.M. Smucker CEO Mark Smucker said.

Packaging innovation offers another opportunity. PepsiCo chairman and CEO Ramon Laguarta said the company has invested in updating its packaging for “portion control” and “portability” as customers snack more throughout the day.

PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Ramon Luis Laguarta presents at CAGNY 2024 (Photo taken by Yahoo Finance).
PepsiCo chairman and CEO Ramon Luis Laguarta presents at CAGNY 2024. (Yahoo Finance)

“We want to make sure that consumers can find us in many more occasions,” he said. Pepsi is also leaning into powders and tablets, “giving consumers the opportunity to find Gatorade or to use Gatorade in a much different way.”

Food giants are also reengaging consumers through marketing campaigns with new partners.

Hershey, for example, excited the CAGNY conference crowd by bringing in NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal to announce a partnership to “win” in the gummy segment, the fastest-growing sweets segment. Conagra Brands, meanwhile, shared that Dolly Parton's baking line is expanding into frozen shelves.

Companies are looking for partnerships beyond grocery store shelves too. They're eager to tap into the market for dining away from home, which has seen prices continue to grow.

For instance, did you know McCormick (MKC) launched a limited-time offering with McDonald's (MCD) in February for the McSpicy sandwich in the UK with Frank's RedHot sauce? Or that it teamed up with Wendy's (WEN) to launch a breakfast burrito served with Cholula hot sauce?

“We're excited to continue to leverage our brands and our hot and spicy flavors to further penetrate menus and add the heat in away-from-home channels,” McCormick CFO Michael Smith said.

The buzz around M&A

While no major announcements were made, many companies teased that they're open to dealmaking but are waiting for the right company to come along.

WK Kellogg's Pilnick said potential targets "would likely be [in the] center of the food business where our brands would resonate because you'd get cost synergies." However, he noted that WK Kellogg is not focused on M&A right now.

Mondelēz CEO Dirk Van de Put gave investors insight into its M&A process. The company begins by building relationships with about 30 to 40 companies, most of which are family-owned, making gaining trust on both sides crucial.

"We can't forecast the timetable, but what I can say is that the pipeline is active," Van de Put said. Deals are getting “more expensive because there's more interest," he added. "We want to stay very disciplined."

However, the next major food deal may not be a traditional acquisition.

Mizuho's Baumgartner told Yahoo Finance that investors could see deals similar to Walmart's acquisition of Vizio, in which "food staples companies [acquire] differentiated tech companies" to gain a deeper understanding of consumers.

Brooke DiPalma is a senior reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @BrookeDiPalma or email her at bdipalma@yahoofinance.com.

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