Business·Analysis

How French's ketchup took a bite out of Heinz

French's sustained success in Canada is likely due to a combination of ingredients, including continuous free publicity and a Canadian-made ketchup that also offers a taste and price consumers find palatable.

Free publicity, plus a decent price, has allowed French's to gain ground at Heinz's expense

Joanne Duguay, of Bathurst, N.B., switched to French's ketchup in 2016 after learning about its Canadian connection in a social media post. (Joanne Duguay)

Just before barbecue season ignites, Heinz ketchup has launched a new TV ad to woo Canadians. The commercial climaxes with the brand smothering a lonely plate of fries to the tune of What About Love by Heart.

But the ad may not be enough to win back the hearts of Canadians who left Heinz a few years ago, angered by its decision to move its ketchup manufacturing operations from Leamington, Ont., to the U.S.

Many defectors turned to a relative newcomer to the ketchup scene, French's, which promised to use only Canadian-grown tomatoes. 

French's customers have remained loyal, allowing the brand to take a bite out of Heinz's stranglehold on the Canadian ketchup market — a notable feat, considering Heinz has been selling ketchup in Canada for more than a century.

"Condiments are intrinsically linked to attitudes and habits," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Halifax's Dalhousie University who specializes in food distribution and policy. 

"What French's has accomplished in recent years is unheard of."

French's sustained success is  likely due to a combination of ingredients, including a spate of free publicity, as well as a Canadian-made ketchup that offers a taste and price consumers find palatable.

"The Canadian stuff only gets you so far," said food industry analyst Kevin Grier. "Their product must be good enough to stick around."

French's ketchup — owned by U.S. food company McCormick — launched in Canada in late 2015. According to market research company Euromonitor, the brand quickly gained ground, and snagged 5.1 per cent of Canadian retail ketchup sales by 2018. It ranks as Heinz's biggest competitor.

Heinz ketchup —  owned by U.S. food company Kraft Heinz — still held 77.5 per cent of the market share in 2018. But that's a 6.2 per cent drop from 2015.

Presumably, French's growth has come at Heinz's expense.

How did French's do it?

A year before it merged with Kraft in 2015, Heinz planted the seed for potential troubles when it sold its Leamington processing plant and moved its Canadian ketchup operations to the U.S.

Kraft Heinz told CBC News that the company never actually left Leamington, as the plant's new owner still processes many products for Heinz — other than ketchup. Kraft Heinz said the value of those products, such as tomato juice, is currently worth four times the Canadian retail ketchup market.

"Kraft Heinz continues to be a proud Canadian employer," spokesperson Montana Brisbin said in an email.

But that wasn't the perception of many Canadians when Heinz pulled its ketchup production, leaving some Leamington tomato farmers without a customer. 

"They hurt a lot of people there," said John Skoczen of Leamington, who worked as a labourer at the Heinz plant. "[Farmers] were up in the air, they didn't know what they were doing."

Heinz sold its processing plant in Leamington, Ont., in 2014 and moved its ketchup operations to the U.S. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

In December of 2015, French's came to the rescue, pledging to make ketchup with Leamington tomatoes.The move led to prolonged free publicity for the brand — the kind that money can't buy.

First, a Facebook post praising French's, and detailing how Heinz ketchup had left Leamington, went viral, with more than a quarter of a million shares.

"[That] was the catalyst,"said Joanne Duguay, of Bathurst, N.B. At that time, she decided to abandon Heinz for French's.

"It was shabby what they did to Canadian farmers. You just can't do that and think that people are going to turn around and just say, 'OK, not a problem.'"

After briefly pulling it in 2016, Loblaws returned French's ketchup to its shelves following a public outcry. (CBC)

Then, grocery giant Loblaws stopped selling French's ketchup in March 2016 due to "low" demand. The move sparked outrage from fans on social media, so the grocer quickly backtracked and the event made headlines. As a result, French's became a household name.

"Loblaws did them the biggest favour, because it just caught on with Canadians," said Beth Mouratidis, of Barrie, Ont., who learned about French's commitment to Leamington at that time.

"French's came along like a knight on a white horse and saved the day, and I wanted to support that."

The brand got even more free publicity in 2017 when it started bottling its ketchup in Canada to make it a 100 per cent Canadian-made product.

French's started bottling its ketchup at a plant in North York, Ont., in 2017. (Jacqueline Hansen/CBC)

To top it all off, when the federal government imposed retaliatory tariffs last year on some U.S. imports — including ketchup — French's got a shout-out from the prime minister.

"We have ketchup made in Canada — called French's ketchup — that's just great," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last September, when discussing the tariffs at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York.

"Obviously, when you have your brand mentioned by the prime minister, it's certainly publicity you can't buy," said Charlebois.

Taste and price matter, too

While French's has had ample opportunity to win over Canadians, the love-affair likely wouldn't have lasted unless customers agreed with the taste and price.

"The combination of the quality and price is probably allowing it to hold its own," said food industry analyst, Grier.

CBC News checked major grocers' regular prices online for both brands and found they were comparable.

And French's parent company, McCormick, insists its ketchup's taste is key.

"Our continued success and increase in sales over the past three years is driven by its great taste and pride in being prepared and bottled in Canada," said Cheryl Radisa, vice-president of marketing for McCormick Canada, in an email.

Fans like Duguay and Mouratidis said the ketchup tastes pretty much like Heinz — and they're happy with that.

Kraft Heinz will launch a new product in Canada next month: Mayochup, a condiment that combines Heinz's ketchup and mayonnaise. (Kraft Heinz)

And the battle is far from over. Kraft Heinz said it's about to step up its ketchup advertising campaigns. And next month, it launches a new product in Canada: Mayochup — a blend of Heinz ketchup and mayonnaise.

Kraft Heinz also suggests its future up north looks bright: It said its Canadian ketchup sales have grown over the past six months and are now higher than they were a year ago. 

"Canadians continue to be incredibly passionate about Heinz ketchup," said spokesperson, Brisbin.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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