Virtually every person, at one time or another, has had instant noodles.
It’s a staple among microwave meals, a favorite among students trying to save money and a guilty pleasure for many others.
The first instant noodles were created in Japan in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Food Products. They were made by dehydrating steamed, seasoned noodles in oil heat. With a little boiling water, you had ‘magic ramen’ in two minutes.
People went crazy for it.
Since then, the category has become a global phenomenon, with 103 billion servings eaten worldwide every year.
It has also come under scrutiny with the rise of health-conscious consumption.
Instant noodles can be low in protein and fiber but high in fat, carbs and sodium. Some manufacturers have responded by using various ‘healthy’ recipes, but the flavours and varieties have remained more or less the same for years.
Competition is tough in this category. When making a decision, most people (excluding hardcore noodle devotees) don’t have very strong brand preferences, so price can often be the determining factor.
But some brands are pushing against that trend and adding other kinds of value to the category. Among them are Mr. Lee’s Noodles and Yoodles.
Mr. Lee’s is an award-winning brand of premium noodles in a cup made with freeze-dried ingredients (rather than dehydrated).
Mr. Lee’s is a bit more expensive than most other instant noodles at Woolworths, but it also promises a better experience for consumers and their bodies.
Similarly, Yoodles is a gluten-free, vegan-friendly noodle made with brown rice and no added MSG.
It costs only slightly more than classic instant noodle options and boasts high levels of whole grains. Yet it remains a small brand compared to Maggi and Fantastic.
In such a commoditized and established category, what can Mr. Lee’s, Yoodles and other innovative brands do to stand out?
Yoodles: First of its kind
Yoodles launched in May 2017 – when there were no other gluten-free instant noodles on the shelf at Woolworths. At the time, Coles was the only retailer addressing the needs of gluten-free noodle consumers with a private label offered in the health food aisle.
According to Joshua Green from Yoodles, acceptance has been strong among consumers looking for healthier or gluten-free options. He said:
‘The GF consumer has long been forgotten in the noodle category and we are solving a real problem for shared households with both kids who do and do not suffer from gluten intolerances’.
Since the brand’s launch, other conventional brands like Trident and Fantastic have entered the gluten-free noodle market.
Mr. Lee’s Noodles: On a mission
Mr. Lee’s was founded by Damien Lee, a Sydney-born entrepreneur and cancer survivor. While he underwent treatment, he craved instant noodles. But his strict diet wouldn’t let him indulge.
Fortunately, he got better. And when he did, he made it his mission to create noodles with no ‘nasties’: palm oil, artificial additives or preservatives, flavour enhancers, etc.
Mr. Lee’s Noodles were first released in the UK in 2017 and arrived in Woolworths in 2018.
According to Kasia Bigda, the Marketing and Communications Director at Mr. Lee’s, the noodle company is ‘on track to become a $2.1 mil brand by the end of 2020, with brand awareness set to grow from 40% to 60%’.
Despite Mr. Lee’s generally positive reception, there hasn’t been enough movement on Australian shelves yet.
We sent our shoppers to take photos of Mr. Lee’s at various Woolworths and found that the noodles have a relatively small share of shelf at the very top of the displays.
‘Majority of shelves are still stocking cheap, nasty noodles, but some forward thinking retailers are open to improving the category. Unfortunately many retailers still seem unwilling to offer healthier options to their consumers’.
Yoodles – located to the right of Mr. Lee’s – appears to be dealing with similar location and share-of-shelf limitations, despite having been on the shelf a bit longer.
While healthier alternatives have been driving growth in the noodle category in Europe and the USA, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Australia at the moment.
Do these noodles belong in the gluten-free section instead?
With so much competition from cheaper, more established noodles, it raises the question of whether these ‘no-nasties’ noodle brands might benefit from a relocation.
We asked Green to comment on the decision to remain in the instant noodle section. He said:
‘We have a strong loyalty in the conventional aisle and have created a destination for consumers looking for GF and better for you noodles. As long as we continue to educate consumers on our range and where we are merchandised in store we believe we are in the right section of the supermarket‘.
According to Green, Yoodles already has a new suite of flavour and alternative noodle options ready to be launched in 2020. This expansion supports the implication that strong customer loyalty, combined with some education, can be enough to support the presence of gluten-free noodles in the conventional aisle.
So what can these brands do to stand out in the noodle category?
Currently, Mr. Lee’s is mostly relying on a colour block packaging design to stand out from the competition. When all of the flavours are listed, they’re supposed to create a rainbow.
‘We believe that healthier options should be more visible and brands should not be afraid to use bold colours to catch people’s attention’.
So far, the design seems to be doing its job, despite being limited by assortment and shelf location constraints.
Mr. Lee’s is also encouraging people to visit the noodle aisle with a wide range of marketing activities, including:
- Product sampling
- Social media
- Outdoor advertising
- Collaboration with Coeliac Australia
- Video ads onboard Virgin Airlines
It’s still early days, but the noodle company has already spoken to two other major retailers in Australia who are considering stocking Mr. Lee’s range of noodles. Bigda also mentioned plans to expand beyond noodles in 2020.
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