Big 3 Losing Market To Expanding Smaller Brands

Smaller brands on the US shelf-stable tuna market have increased their volume share of overall sales, as the joint grip of the Big 3 brands has weakened. This has been driven by a declining taste for chunk light, according to several sources, while the popularity of higher quality, solid pack tuna grows.

Dave Melbourne of Bumble Bee Foods presented the latest US tuna market figures at the Bangkok tuna conference last month, showing that the smaller names like Wild Planet, Sustainable Seas, Genova, American Tuna, Crowne Prince, Ocean Naturals, and more, are commanding a bigger volume share, while the proportion of sales represented by the Big 3 have dropped.

The piece of the pie of smaller brands has climbed from just 1.5 percent in the previous data to 7.5 percent, running up until March this year. At the same time the joint share of the Big 3 - StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea - dropped from 81.5 percent to 77.

Source: Top from Dave Melbourne’s TUNA2016 presentation. Bottom from his TUNA2018 presentation.

Atuna reported in February that the growth of the smaller niche canned tuna brands would be unstoppable competition for the nation’s Big 3, unless substantial changes were made. Sources stated that overall sales in the country had dropped as consumers turned increasingly away from chunk light tuna, the segment in which the major brands lead. Many in the industry have credited this to the declining quality of the product due to the use of additives like hydrolyzed proteins and vegetable broth.

Several US market sources mentioned that while sales of chunk light have fallen, the smaller brands in the market have witnessed continuous growth. These are brands that are known to concentrate more heavily on quality solid pack albacore canned tuna, caught in a responsible way.

While volumes were not outlined in Melbourne’s previous presentation, he showed this time around, that over the year period, more than 2.3 million cases of canned tuna under these smaller brands had been sold. He does not specify the exact composition of a case, but it is usually 48 cans between 125g and 140g.

Overall Melbourne showed that canned tuna sales on the US market in the 52 week period dropped by 3.7 million cases YoY. The decline for total shelf-stable tuna sales was less heavy however, partly offset by a rise in purchases of pouched tuna and ready to eat kits.

Some of the Big 3 brands have reacted to the growth of the smaller brands by bringing out their own ranges, focusing more on quality and responsible practices. StarKist owner Dongwon launched Blue Harbor MSC certified albacore products to the US market for example.

But in order for the Big 3 names themselves to gain back any lost market share there needs to be a massive investment into changing their image, and into advertising campaigns, several sources including Melbourne, have said. There have been doubts raised however over the willingness for these companies to take this necessary step.