CHICAGO — America's two largest hot dog makers are waging a wiener war as grills fire up this summer, hoping to win over customers and secure the No. 1 spot atop the stagnating frank market.
The latest round in the long-running feud comes as Kraft Foods Inc.'s Oscar Mayer brand gives its signature hot dog a makeover aimed at stealing momentum from Sara Lee Corp.'s Ball Park Franks.
Kraft hopes its reformulation — its first in 20 years for the all-beef hot dog — and a massive promotional campaign attract new customers and their palates with a zestier, meatier recipe.
"(Consumers are) continuing to look for higher flavors, beefier, juicier hot dogs and we saw that as an opportunity to grow that portion of our business," said Sean Marks, senior director of marketing for Oscar Mayer.
Both suburban Chicago food manufacturers claim the designation as the nation's top hot dog brand, based on separate readings of market research and sales data. Experts say the frank fight may become more difficult as the economy sours and hot dog consumption — at least among adults — hits its lowest level since the mid-1980s.
"You can say, at best, long-term, it's flat," said Harry Balzer, a vice president with research firm NPD Group. "(But) it's still a valuable market."
So valuable, in fact, that about 956 million packages of hot dogs were sold at U.S. retailers in the past year, according to data from The Nielsen Co. That's on top of the estimated 30 million hot dogs — often regional brands — that Major League Baseball fans down each season at the nation's ballparks.
And with grocery sales of about $2 billion last year hot dogs are far from being discounted. According to NPD data, 48 percent of American children aged 18 and under will eat at least one hot dog in the next two weeks.
That alone is enough for companies to take notice — particularly Kraft and Sara Lee, which are both in the midst of turnaround plans aimed at reviving stalled sales.
Kraft, the world's second-largest food company, is also spending the summer promoting its line of snack-sized hot dogs that launched in April by sending its new "Mini Weinermobile" on a nationwide marketing tour along side the full-scale model.
Meanwhile, Sara Lee is touting its angus beef franks, turkey franks and whole-grain buns that it announced in May.
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With products like that, it's not just kids the companies hope to woo.
"Both of us are evolving with consumers," said Chuck Hemmingway, brand director for Ball Park.
Good deals move hot dogs
Stanton Means, a 48-old hot dog afficionado-turned-blogger from Charleston, W.Va., figures he downs nearly a dozen dogs every month while running the Web site WVHotDogs.com.
"In our culture, it's definitely a staple," said Means, who prefers his franks topped with chili, cole slaw, mustard and onions. "I often say that it's an obligatory item for a menu in West Virginia. If you have a restaurant, you have to have a hot dog, even if it's not a hot dog type restaurant."
But if he's cooking for friends, Means admits that even the finest-grade frank doesn't hold a candle to whatever's on sale at the grocery store — Oscar Mayer, Ball Park or otherwise.
"We'll probably look at price point, more than taste," he said. "If I'm buying wieners just to make hot dogs for a picnic, I'm buying the cheap ones."
That's a sentiment analysts say could be hard for Kraft and Sara Lee to overcome.
"I think that area of the store, nine times out of 10, it usually comes down to price," said Morningstar analyst Greggory Warren. "And with customers strapped right now, that does have an impact."
Both companies declined to release specific information how much they've increased hot dog prices to cope with rising commodities costs or how much they're spending to promote their hot dog products.
But Kraft is pricing its revamped Beef Franks at $3.99 — about a dime more than previous versions.
"You definitely have people who are Ball Park Franks or Oscar Mayer enthusiasts and you're never going to change them," Warren said. "It's just that right now, where the environment is, pushing a premium product is probably not going to go as smoothly as it would have gone two or three years ago."
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