Fresh pasta's remarkable rise is helping to boost the value of a sector dominated by own-label.
Pasta brands are having to innovate fast to stay ahead of the own-label offerings that dominate their sector. Last year, Napolina launched the UK's first branded bruschetta topping, in response to demand for restaurant-style food at home. The brand's owner, Princes Foods, has appointed Big Communications to the advertising account for Napolina, with a brief to develop the brand. Princes has been expanding the range since acquiring it from Unilever. Meanwhile, last month, Italian fresh-pasta maker Rana approached several agencies with a brief to push its lines in the UK.
Pasta is regarded by many consumers as the ultimate convenience food - quick, easy to prepare and healthy. A staple on dinner tables from student lodgings to family kitchens, sales reached pounds 485m in 2006 - a 6% rise in real terms since 2002, according to Mintel.
Yet, with the average person in the UK eating 2.5kg of pasta a year compared with Italians' 28kg, it is clear that the foodstuff has some way to go before it is as popular here as in its homeland.
Indeed, pasta remains dwarfed here by potatoes and rice, its main rivals as a meal constituent; the average consumption of potatoes is eight times more than dry pasta and almost double for rice.
On the positive side, this means there should be plenty of room for further growth within the sector. Moreover, the increasing popularity of the GI diet, replacing the anti-carb Atkins, is already standing pasta in good stead, with sales of wholewheat variants doubling over the past couple of years sales to pounds 7m.
Pasta-based ready meals account for more than 55% of the market, but sales have started to stagnate; the category has grown by just pounds 1m in the past two years. This market is very much replicating the trends experienced in the overall ready-meals sector: sales of chilled products are continuing to grow, while frozen products are suffering.
Store-cupboard essential dry pasta is the sector's second-biggest category, with sales last year reaching pounds 105m. However, the category has suffered price deflation since 2002.
Sales of fresh pasta, meanwhile, grew to pounds 95m between 2002 and 2006. The category now accounts for 20% of the sector, compared with 22% for dry pasta. Consumers tend to opt for the latter because of its long shelf-life, while choosing fresh for its flavour.
Despite its impressive growth, still only a third of pasta eaters buy fresh, so there is considerable room for adding value to the sector if manufacturers and retailers can find a way of encouraging consumers to switch from dry pasta - and stop relying so heavily on multiple-purchase promotions.
When it comes to pasta formats, while shoppers in other countries opt for specific shapes according to the sauce accompanying it, UK consumers tend to stick with their favourites. Spaghetti is the most popular format, with sales in the dry category more than double its nearest rival, lasagne.
One area in which the sector could improve its prospects is in trading on its benefits as a snack food. Microwaveable pouches, chilled cooked pasta and instant pasta snacks all have the potential to rival more traditional snacks, but despite their simplicity, have so far failed to position themselves to take advantage.
Although many consumers regard pasta as a commodity item, many aspire to a Mediterranean diet, which is associated with good health.
With TGI research finding that almost a third of consumers are willing to pay more for authentic Italian brands, it should be good news for the branded players. However, the value of the sector has been muffled to date by the fact that own-label still accounts for 70% of dry pasta sales and 93% of fresh pasta. And with nearly all the brands in the market focusing strongly on their Italian provenance, there is little brand differentiation and little reason for consumers to choose a particular product over any grocers' own. …