I don’t do a lot of PR gigs. Not, you understand, because I have any kind of ethical framework. It’s more that recent offers have tended to be either “bake this and tweet about it” (yawn), or something genuinely interesting I can’t make because my calendar is a car crash.
Then I got an email asking if I’d like to try “the UK’s first cook from frozen soufflé”, as part of Iceland’s new autumn range.
I know, right? A total disaster, obviously. I’ll get a funny story and a free lunch. Sweet.
Except it was actually good.
I think we need to talk about soufflé.
Iceland’s frozen soufflé
What Iceland have done here is freeze a fairly simple lemon soufflé mix at the point before baking. It defrosts as it cooks and rises, and this helps preserve a soft, moist texture. This is not mad science, and folks have been doing it for a while, but I’ve not seen one in the shops before.
The finished soufflé is a bit sweet for my palate, but the lemon notes were pretty fresh and balanced. The body texture is great, too – really soft and supple. The top finish was a touch odd, with a slight sticky cling that I suspect is from the sugar. There’s something redolent of soft-baked meringue going on with it. If I had to guess, I’d say the flour content was a little lower than you’d probably plump for at home. If so, I wonder if it’s a freezing thing. I wish I’d asked now.
The soufflé being the star of the show, they had a chef on hand to talk us through it, and let us whip up our own batch to compare. That’s a neat bit of staging, and it served to highlight the advantage they’re shooting for here which is not only convenience but consistency. Iceland are making some pretty bold claims around fault tolerance and how well these soufflés will shake out across a range of domestic ovens.
Specifically, the chef (a chap called Richard McGeown) claimed a conventional soufflé recipe has a ± 3 minute error bar on the timings, but that they’ve got theirs down to around 30 seconds. I was sceptical, but they worked pretty damn well on the day.
The batch baked for the demo were (deliberately? It’s hard not to be cynical) a little more cakey and eggy in finish. A nice contrast, but equally the frozen ones could have been firmer, a little to the cakier side. Their texture was genuinely good, but looser and more mousse-y than I was quite expecting. Soufflé purists may be less charitable.
I definitely enjoyed this more as a food technology curio than a virtuoso dessert, but then I’m not really the target market. I like to fuss. If you don’t, then maybe try one of these? The lemon is fresh and the results are super predictable. You may not get on with the sweetness and the texture, but it’ll be a cheap mistake to make, and I do think they’re tasty.
The autumn range
Iceland were keen to show off a few other things in their autumn range, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. Broadly, the fresh-frozen produce was good, the ready meals less so. The beef bourguignon for instance, while they’d done a good job with the meat texture, was just leaning too heavily on salt, and was way under on the wine notes. But “ready meals a bit lacklustre, occasionally salty” is shooting fish in a barrel, and I’m far more interested in the fish they froze.
We were served cod loins, Dover sole, and red snapper. The cod I could take or leave, but the snapper and sole I would absolutely consider buying. They’d both retained freshness and not lost texture. The snapper had a faint sweetness to it. I wouldn’t buy this over market-fresh fish, but it’s completely competitive with a supermarket offering.
Similarly the slow cooked lamb leg. This was hovering between ready meal and convenience produce, having basically been frozen after a 9 hour factory sous vide. The marketing team seemed, if anything, prouder of this than the soufflé, and I sort of get it. There was a little dryness, but it sliced beautifully, and they’d got the tenderness they were shooting for. Again, not something I’d buy, but that’s more a category exclusion than a quality judgement.
I guess it comes down to where you locate the value. I don’t take dinner party shortcuts because it’s the process (and the learning) that I enjoy. But I do buy, say, frozen peas and spinach. I do value convenience where there’s no quality hit, and the fish here broadly qualifies.
The business bit
Trying the food was fun – Iceland put on a great show. But the unexpected bonus was talking to some of their commercial and marketing team about what they’re trying to do with the range.
Not least because Iceland isn’t really on my mental grocery map. I got talking about to Nigel (one of their MDs) about this and what they’re trying to do with this range. He explained that there’s very heavy competition at the low price end of the market where they’ve traditionally won. Lidl, Aldi, and the European bulk discount chains are delivering at really low price points, and occasionally getting awards doing it. A little further along, they can’t go toe-to-toe with, say, Tesco or Asda on economies of scale. At the Waitrose/M&S end, there are what we might call some brand perceptions problems. But against all of this, they basically own “frozen” as a category.
It’s not wildly unlike an “innovator’s dilemma” scenario. By continuing to serve their traditional best customers, Iceland could get their lunch eaten by discounters with stronger range, logistics, and purchasing power. What else can you do with the other bit of their competitive advantage? Parlaying a version of “frozen” and “convenience” into aspirational shopping doesn’t sound like a dumb idea.
They’ll have some challenges in retail presentation and marketing outside their base (hence the PR effort, I guess), but it’s interesting. Lots of companies want to get out of positioning as shifting product, and into selling capability, and this was eerily similar to the way Nigel talked about their aims with the Autumn range. The idea seems to be capitalising on lively interest in food by offering the convenience of frozen produce rather than ready meals. Particularly around things that are either fashionable, aspirational, or in some cases just time consuming. Hence the slow-cook emphasis (with a marketing hint of sous vide), the cod loins (trendy-ish) red snapper (again), asparagus (bonus foodie points), and of course the iconic soufflé.
The accompanying cookbook is part of this. Content marketing tends to pay off, although it does rather come with the expense that you have to market your marketing collateral if you’re not getting good organic pickup. The Power of Frozen is their big bang content play here. It’s a mix of credible classics and eyebrow-raisers (fish and chips pie?) with some sound advice on home freezing. Again, this is all positioning – sell the idea that both aspirational and healthy everyday food can have perfectly sensible freezer substrates, and people should buy the frozen food. I’ve run campaigns like this on a small scale with software and technical ebooks. It basically works if you can tap into some enthusiasm in your audience.
So will the whole campaign work? Um. The fish might have legs, but the retail brand would need to evolve too. Getting price-conscious middle class shoppers out of Sainsbury’s or Waitrose isn’t trivial, and the feel of the stores may be a sticking point. But they do have a competitive product here with the frozen sole and snapper, far more so than with the ready meal offering. Fish can be tricky to source, some people are nervous, and a lot of supermarket fish is frozen already. I reckon Iceland do have a shot.