But could they fare any better under new ownership?
From a marketing perspective, says Nick Cloke at marketing consultancy Catalyst, it could prove challenging to refresh Chicken Tonight, which was memorably promoted by Ian Wright mimicking our feathered friends while preparing dinner in a bizarre velvet smoking jacket.
Ragu, on the other hand, could potentially be given a more upmarket positioning, he says, although the premium segment of the market in particular has recently become “massively overcrowded”.
Jonathan Gabay from Brand Forensics also suspects it will take more than a Premiership footballer to knock up a slap-up meal and do a bit of dad-dancing to impress punters a decade on.
Chicken Tonight Coleen? Not tonight Wayne...
Chicken Tonight, he says, is a just “a bit yesterday”, and like Ragu has also struggled to retain its footing in a category where arguably stronger brands from Homepride to Napolina, Dolmio, Loyd Grossman and Unilever’s own Bertolli brand are all wrestling for space.
With combined retail sales of around £35m in the UK and Ireland, Chicken Tonight and Ragu are small fry in the context of Unilever’s €20bn global food business, but it is interesting that ambient wet cooking sauces – a £560m market in the UK alone with sales up 8% and volumes up 2% in 2009 - is not a category in which Unilever feels it can build significant scale, says Cloke.
However, the amount of money it would have to spend to rejuvenate the brands in question is probably not warranted given their relatively small contribution to the group bottom line, he suggests.
As for suitors, it is not entirely clear who is in the running, one industry source observes: "The problem for the likes of Mars, Heinz et al is that they would prefer that the brands just died. It's not dissimilar to when Pepsico tried to sell Sugar Puffs and got no interest from Nestle, Weetabix or Kelloggs. If Unilever has no interest [in Chicken Tonight and Ragu], why should they?"
He adds: "They may be of interest to one of the smaller Indian sauce manufacturers to broaden their range."
Premier Foods (which owns Homepride, Loyd Grossman and Sharwood’s) would be a ‘natural buyer’, observes Investec analyst Martin Deboo. “But [given its unhealthy balance sheet] I don’t think it can contemplate potential acquisitions right now, however small.”
And while own-label manufacturers such as Greencore have significant expertise in cooking sauces, firms more geared to driving brands would probably be better suited to taking on the Chicken Tonight challenge, notes another City analyst.
Unilever, meanwhile, says it is assessing its “strategic options” for the brands as part of an ongoing review, and will consider “all the options”.
And one of these, it appears, is continuing to produce the sauces under contract for the new brand owner, given that it is only proposing to sell the brands in the UK and Ireland and not the manufacturing facilities in Continental Europe that produce them.
Thus, were a suitor without a manufacturing footprint to emerge, Unilever could come to a contract manufacturing arrangement with the new brand owner.
This could open the doors for private equity firms or outfits such as Sugar Puffs owner Big Bear, which likes to inject new life into unloved brands, although the latter has historically purchased whole businesses – complete with factories – rather than brands in isolation, notes one industry source.
At this stage, he says, we’ll just have to wait and see who feels like Chicken Tonight, because Unilever, it seems, has lost its appetite.