It’s hot dog season. Flip-flop wearing, tong-toting Americans from Connecticut to California are firing up their backyard grills for wiener roasts. Pass the relish, please.

If you’re a hot dog processor, the grilling season is hot dog heaven. That’s because about 40 percent of your business takes place during hot dog season, comprised of the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. In fact, 10 percent of annual retail hot dog sales occur during July, which is designated as National Hot Dog Month.

“Memorial Day to Labor Day is the sweet spot,” says Matt Monkiewicz, vice president of marketing for Chelsea, Mass.-based Kayem Foods, which produces several varieties of hot dogs, brats, sausages and deli meats.

There are hundreds of other hot dog and sausage processors throughout the country that realize the best-laid plans for their businesses must be geared toward the outdoor-cooking season. Hence, they spend plenty of time readying marketing plans for the summer grilling theme.

Monkiewicz says it’s important to get Kayem’s brand on retail shelves early enough to take advantage of the warm weather. Kayem’s sales team works hard with retailers to secure that display space.

“So when the warm weather hits, we’re on the shelf,” he adds.

Kayem always has big plans for its summer marketing efforts with a focus on quality.

“When we do something, we like to do it big and put everything we have into it,” Monkiewicz says. “We want to exude quality, so we don’t do retail discount-type advertising. We try to partner with brands as big as us. We don’t want to partner with a discount potato chip supplier when we’re a premium hot dog brand.”

The summer grilling season is vital to Sara Lee Corp.’s Ball Park brand, and it’s important to offer consumers a variety of options, says Amy Grabow, marketing director for the Downer’s Grove, Ill.-based company.

“Product innovation is always a priority for us to ensure we’re offering a wide variety of options to meet the evolving needs and tastes of our consumers, particularly as families approach the summer grilling and outdoor entertaining season,” she says.

The hot dog season, of course, includes sausages, so it’s no surprise the summer grilling theme is a big component of Johnsonville Sausage’s business.

“Sales that we don’t capture in summer are very difficult to make up after the grilling season,” says Jim Mueller, group marketing manager for the Sheboygan, Wis.-based company.

The marketing plan

In coming up with a summer grilling marketing plan, Grabow says Ball Park marketers try to think like consumers.

“We think about what will make our consumers just as excited as we are for the season,” she says. The goal is to develop a “home-run marketing plan that resonates with the consumer and also gets the retailer excited.”

Ball Park takes a strong integrated marketing effort toward the season and focuses on consumer nuances, such as how and when their purchase decisions are made, Grabow says. The key is to learn where the messaging is most effective.

To ramp up marketing efforts this summer, Ball Park added a new product – the Deli-Style Beef Frank, a high-quality frank made with 100-percent beef and containing no artificial colors, flavors, by-products or MSG. Ball Park is also focusing marketing efforts on its Angus hot dog line and Smoked White Turkey Franks.

Much of Kayem’s marketing surrounds the baseball and hot dogs theme, which is a natural, Monkiewicz says. Baseball has been good to Kayem’s summer marketing efforts because Kayem is the official brand of hot dogs and sausage for the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park.

While Kayem, which produces 1 million hot dogs daily, doesn’t sell as many hot dogs at Fenway Park as people might think – about 1.5 million a year – being in Fenway Park is a marketing boon for the company.

“From a branding perspective, having an association with that franchise has been been very good for us,” Monkiewicz says. “We’re able to build awareness of the brand, which enables us to convert a lot of people to a brand with our messaging.”

It’s nice to tell consumers they can purchase the same franks and sausage at their local supermarkets that are sold at Fenway Park. Kayem runs a mix of advertising and public relations for its summer marketing. It’s TV spots run during Red Sox games.

Monkiewicz says hot dogs on the grill also represent “a good feeling image,” a message the company aims to capture in its summer marketing.

Johnsonville’s grilling promotions are centered around summertime fun with friends and family, Mueller says.

“Grilling Johnsonville sausage and sharing good times with friends and family is our focus,” he adds. “We have a mix of TV, radio, couponing, cross-promotions, two Big Taste Grills, public relations and extensive online and social media programs. We have fine-tuned our marketing mix through analytics, but we realize the best results are a mix of art and science.”

Johnsonville is also marketing a new product this summer – a chicken sausage that contains 50 percent less fat than the standard variety and is available in apple, three-cheese Italian style and chipotle Monterey jack cheese.

“Our marketing plans for this new product will include product sampling demonstrations, in-store signs, retailer direct mail and coupons,” Mueller says. “Additionally, we’ll be running a national TV spot, and we’ll also have national free-standing inserts.”

Johnsonville will also use its famed Big Taste Grill – a semi-truck-sized grill that travels the country and helps raise money for local organizations – to support the chicken sausage.

Processors begin their summer marketing plans many months in advance.

“We work collaboratively with our agency partners to develop a comprehensive plan that aligns with the brand’s goals for the summer grilling season,” Grabow says.

Mueller says Johnsonville began planning for this summer last July.

“The marketing plan is developed from a broad assessment of consumer and customer trends,” he says. “Most importantly, we work with our customers upfront in the process.”

Monkiewicz says the Kayem marketing team had its first planning meeting this past May for the 2012 summer grilling season. The plan will be finalized in September after it’s discussed extensively in July and August.

Setting a marketing plan is one thing, monitoring it is another.

“We may set our plans in July and August for the following summer, but we’re continually tweaking them throughout the year,” Monkiewicz says. “We won’t place our final media buy until March. That gives us a lot of time to adjust.”

Social media

Processors are also utilizing social media as part of their summer grilling marketing efforts.

“We launched the Grilling Days of Summer Sweepstakes on the Ball Park Franks Facebook page just in time for the kick-off of the season,” Grabow says.

The sweepstakes ran from May 25 until June 15. Ball Park fans could submit a photo of a memorable outdoor summer grilling moment held with family and/or friends to be entered for the chance to win the Ultimate 4th of July Bash or be one of 10 winners to receive a Ball Park party pack with grilling essentials.

In addition to taking part in the sweepstakes, people could also visit the Grilling Days of Summer tab on Facebook to view grilling videos and tips from Ball Park Chef Catherine De Orio.

“It’s important that we implement programs that will not only resonate with the Ball Park consumer, but will create opportunities to further engage with every one of them,” Grabow says.

Kayem and Johnsonville also use social media to market their summer products and conduct contests. Speaking of the latter, Kayem recently launched its biggest summer marketing promotion, its “Throw Out The First Pitch” contest. One lucky grand prize winner will be awarded the opportunity to throw out the first pitch during the Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park on Aug. 2. Other prizes include grill kits and Kayem products.

“It’s by far the biggest contest we’ve ever run,” Monkiewicz says.

Grilling for ideas

Kayem implemented a continuous improvement program five years ago called “Meta,” which is Spanish for “the ultimate goal.” The program has helped spur strategies for summer grilling marketing.

“It has really helped us to foster good ideas coming from different places in our organization,” Monkiewicz says. “Once you’re open to ideas coming from anywhere, then they come from anywhere. They come from our partners and our employees, in addition to cultural trends and other industries. But the value of the idea is in its skillful execution.”

Kayem constantly monitors customer feedback for its summer grilling marketing strategies.

“We want to know what consumers are saying,” Monkiewicz says. “We check to see what they’re saying on our Facebook page. We monitor what’s happening with our consumer support hot line.”

Johnsonville works closely with its retail customers to create shopper marketing programs that help its customers and Johnsonville achieve shared objectives.

“We have made a significant investment in shopper marketing, as our customers have moved from category management to customer loyalty,” Mueller says. “Our goal is to develop shopper communication and promotions that cover the shopper’s path to purchase and build retailer loyalty.”

As a result, Johnsonville has allocated significant marketing resources to specific programs with its retail customers.

Johnsonville’s Big Taste Grill plays a huge role (no pun intended) in its summer grilling marketing campaign.

“The Big Taste Grill provides an experience that TV, radio and other media can’t duplicate,” Mueller says. “It’s an important component of our marketing mix.

“No portion of the marketing mix is off-limits when we work with our customers.”

The summer grilling season isn’t just about succeeding in the summer. Ultimately, it’s about growing a brand.

Kayem is aiming to break into the Washington, DC market and plans to test its franks at Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals. Kayem has also expanded into the Florida market and is the official hot dog and sausage supplier for the Tampa Bay Rays.

“We’ve expanded into the Florida market the past few years, and it made sense for us to partner with the Rays to help us do that,” Monkiewicz says.

The goal is to grow sales at retail, and grow the Kayem brand. “We want to convert that kind of sponsorship into something that helps us gain ground at retail,” Monkiewicz adds.

“In a category that only grows 3 percent a year, it’s tough to find growth,” Monkiewicz says. “Sometimes you have to manufacture it.”

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor based in Cleveland.