Hamburger Helper needs some help.

The classic General Mills product, long the nation’s dominant dry dinner mix, has lost a big chunk of market share recently to a new offering from rival Kraft Foods. Pre-­prepared dinner concoctions — from the grocery freezer to the deli case — are proliferating, giving consumers more options.


Even General Mills CEO Ken Powell recently noted that the Hamburger Helper brand has been “languishing.” So the Golden Valley company is launching a major Helper offensive, starting this month.

New products will combine the customary dry mix and pasta with a sauce pouch. New offerings of Chicken Helper are on tap. Packaging will be revamped. And General Mills will retool its Hamburger Helper marketing plan, broadening its message to younger consumers.

“We are truly relaunching the brand,” said Katy Dickson, a marketing vice president in the company’s meals division.

Hamburger Helper hit supermarkets in 1971, followed by Tuna Helper a year later and Chicken Helper in 1984. The brand became a household name and created a market that it has long dominated.

But two years ago, suburban Chicago-based Kraft launched Velveeta Cheesy Skillets, a dinner mix with a dry mix and a sauce pouch. With the extra ingredients, Velveeta Skillets cost a bit more than Hamburger Helper, but consumers were willing to pay the premium.

“Skillets were a very successful product launch for Kraft, one of our top 10 in recent history,” said Tiphanie Maronta, a Kraft senior brand manager.

For the year ending May 19, Kraft had a 21 percent share of the dry dinner mix market, its sales up 31 percent over a year earlier, according to Chicago-based market researcher IRI, which tracks sales at conventional food retailers.

During the same time, General Mills sales in the dry dinner mix market fell 14 percent to $324 million. And General Mills’ market share, while enviable at 69 percent, was down from 88 percent for 2010.

“I think Kraft’s [Velveeta] launch was kind of a wake-up call for General Mills,” said Rick Shea, owner of Shea Marketing, a Chanhassen-based consultancy. The challenge for any major brand is to “constantly refresh itself,” Shea said. While Hamburger Helper has been retooled several times over the decades, he said, General Mills didn’t do enough in recent years.

CEO Powell said as much. “Hamburger Helper was not doing enough over the last couple of years to really refresh the products.”

This summer’s relaunch starts with a major packaging makeover. It’s a bolder design featuring a more prominent role for the brand’s cartoon mascot, the Helping Hand. The word “Helper” is in larger type than ever, dwarfing “hamburger” or “chicken.”

Indeed, General Mills now refers to the product simply as Helper, not Hamburger Helper. The ascendancy of chicken has a lot to do with that. “Chicken is now the most popular meat most people prepare for dinner,” Dickson said. “On Google, people are always asking, what can I make with chicken?”

Three new Helper chicken offerings are on tap, bringing the brand’s total chicken items to 13 out of an overall lineup of 56, including seven tuna iterations. Another new product is Ultimate Helper, which is fashioned for chicken and hamburger and features — in addition to a dry mix — a sauce pouch.

Ad campaign is set to go

Mills plans an advertising blitz for Helper starting this month. The campaign will include digital, a space in which General Mills is often aggressive, but hadn’t been with Helper. The brand got a Facebook page only in December. Digital would seem vital as General Mills tries to broaden the marketing of Helper to a younger demographic — 20-somethings, particularly men.

“I think it’s really smart for them to target the younger customer that might not know the product,” said Doug deGrood, creative director at Minneapolis ad agency Gabriel deGrood Bendt.

General Mills has another challenge: Hamburger Helper is the sort of brand with a stigma in today’s upscale food culture, DeGrood said. “I don’t think it’s ever had a reputation for being gourmet, and, of course, we now have all become food snobs. The evolved culture that [Helper] now finds itself in makes it a challenge for it to be relevant.”

Indeed, the supermarket deli, and the coolers near it, are often stocked with fresh meals that can be quickly assembled. Freezers feature dinners with such brands as P.F. Chang and Bertolli. Granted, they’re all more expensive than dry mixes such as Helper or Velveeta Skillets.

But consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food that they perceive as fresher or healthier, said Shelley Balanko, a senior vice president at the Hartman Group food consultancy in Bellevue, Wash. “They are really making a mass exodus out of the center of the store, and food culture is telling them to do it.”

The center of the store is home to shelf-stable products, including dinner mixes. Yet the center-store aisles also are home to Spam, an ancient product in packaged-food terms made by Austin-based Hormel Foods, that shows no signs of fading away.

And what does it tell you that the bestselling version of Hamburger Helper and Velveeta Skillets is cheeseburger macaroni? “You could be the snobbiest of food snobs,” DeGrood said, “but there’s something about Hamburger Helper or melted Velveeta that you kind of like.”