The nation's recession has not dampened new product activity nor investment atUnilever United States Inc. Moreover, this Englewood Cliffs, N.J., parent to Bertolli frozen meals is enthusiastically branching into an entirely new frozen meal line in the Asian category.

These were just a few of the ideas and insights shared by Gaston Vaneri, marketing director for Unilever's U.S. frozen food business, in a published interview withBrandweekmagazine.

Following are excerpts of Vaneri's comments about ...

... innovating during a recession.

"We are doing very well through the recession. We continue to be market leaders. We have over a 30 share of the [frozen bagged meals-for-two] market. We continue to grow at a 10 percent year over year rate. I think that’s due to a number of things. One is Bertolli benefited a lot from people down trading from night-out to night-in. It’s become a way for people who might not have the skill or will to cook a fine dinner to have a fine [meal] at home and not in the restaurant. We are having a pretty healthy year. I think that’s one part of it.

The other is we were very careful in how we managed this recession and how we’re going to work through the recession. I think we made a lot of the right decisions as we saw the recession approaching. I come from Latin America, and before coming to the U.S., I worked for 13 years in marketing in different countries, but mostly in Latin America, and have lived through much deeper recessions than this.

...The other thing is we continue to innovate, despite the recession. I think many brands shy away from innovation and go into defense mode in a recession. We see ourselves as rivals to a fine Italian restaurant. If we want people to continue [eating Bertolli], we need to keep them surprised and give them interesting dishes to try. We launched a line of Oven Baked Meals last year. We have five new dishes this year as well. We continue to very aggressively innovate."

... ongoing brand positioning and support for Bertolli

"The first thing is to do no harm, to make sure we continue to deliver the product quality. We are very obsessed about the quality of our products. The product quality is perceived to be better than any other product in the category, and we make sure we sacrifice none of that, so we can continue to claim to be as good as that of an Italian restaurant.

The other thing is doing no harm in making sure that we are competing in the market, but that we don’t over-promote the brand and start eroding the equity. And then making sure we don’t get distracted from doing the things we know work very well for Bertolli-continuing to invest very aggressively in the brand, from communication to continuing to put it in places where a fine dining brand should be, rather than a frozen food brand. So we’re continuing to put the brand in places with celebrities, continuing to invest in things like the Golden Globes and the Emmys and to build the brand the way we know it works."

... developing a new frozen Asian line.

"We look at it through the lens of what we did with Bertolli. When we launched Bertolli in 2005, frozen dinners were TV dinners. The expectation of quality was low and the quality was low. When we launched Bertolli Dinner for Two, what we did was dramatically elevate the level of quality that people expected from frozen foods.

And we have the impression that Asian [cuisine] is ripe for exactly the same thing. What people expect of Asian frozen foods is phenomenally low and I think we can elevate those expectations drastically. When you look at what the restaurant industry did for Asian food, it’s not drastically different from this. To many Americans, Asian food was Chinese take out. But P.F. Chang’s took it to a completely different level and turned it into a fine dining experience that could be scaled to a fine Asian dining experience. They did in Asian restaurants what we did with Bertolli in frozen foods and I think we can repeat the trick.

We are drawing a lot from Bertolli’s success to do what we’ll do with P.F. Chang’s. We’ve learned that if we raise people’s expectations from food to a dining experience-which is not an easy thing to do-but we did it with Bertolli. P.F. Chang’s is by far the most powerful Asian food brand out there. We will be able to do it with P.F. Chang’s again."