It’s the story of a re-energized Denver team whose members share a new vision for success. Yet we’re not talking about baseball’s Colorado Rockies. Rather, it’s Nestlé Prepared Foods’ Denver group, the business behind Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets products.

Nielsen data indicate that during a 52-week period ended August 9, 2008 (excluding Wal-Mart), these Nestlé brands collectively represented 50 percent of the frozen sandwich category. Officials note that both brands continued to improve this year with the Denver-based business posting a 4.1 percent year-to-date increase in overall sales.

Although that performance is noteworthy, it only reflects more important changes behind the scenes, says Bryan Badger, vice president and general manager.

“For the longest time, our business was based on operational performance and that’s fine when there’s really no one competing,” he says. “Now, we’ve really intensified our focus on the consumer.”

Compared to traditional Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine buyers, Badger says Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets consumers are generally younger and cut across both sexes. These buyers are looking for lunch options, snacks and other portable meals that calm a craving - whether it’s in front of the TV or computer.

Even though the meal occasion is more casual, Nestlé puts serious effort into its products. Badger says Denver researchers work much more closely with their Solon, Ohio, counterparts on product development and improvements, as well as consumer insights and culinary trends.

Meanwhile, the Denver group is emphasizing “meaningful innovation over flavor changes,” Badger says. Debuting January 2007, for example, were four new Hot Pockets Calzones. This July also brought Hot Pockets Panini sandwiches and three distinct flavor profiles: Deli-style Ham & Swiss on Rye Focaccia bread, Bruschetta Chicken on a Basil Olive Focaccia and Steak & Cheddar on Onion Focaccia.

Rather than simply roll similar new product and flavor profiles over into Lean Pockets, Nestlé has been more intentional about separating the brands, Badger says. That said, the better-for-you line also has seen its share of activity. This included the January 2008 launch of seven Whole Grain varieties, as well as new front panel information to better flag details about reduced calories, reduced fat and ingredients such as whole grains and real cheese.

Speaking of ingredients, Badger says Lean Pockets is following restaurant menu trends more closely and has developed three new “chef-inspired” offerings this summer. These include Spinach Artichoke Chicken (already popular) followed by Chicken Garlic White Pizza and Spinach Mushroom.

Says Badger, “We’re asking, ‘What are the unmet needs with our target consumers?’ We’d rather truly delight someone with a more sophisticated flavor profile like Spinach Artichoke or a Rye bread than simply roll out another Pepperoni variety. We think these more sophisticated products have more of a chance to become weekly favorites.”