Campbell’s Rewrites Its Recipe for Success

Few products are more iconic and nostalgia-evoking than the red-and-white can of Campbell’s chicken soup. How many American consumers associate that brand with cozy occasions, whether the comfort it brought on a sick day home from school or just simply as a quick and easy way to warm up on a rainy day?

But in what seems like an act of sacrilege to some, the Campbell’s Soup Company recently announced a change to the product formulation. The New York Times reported in November that “…the new version of its chicken noodle soup contains 20 ingredients, most of which can be found in the average home kitchen, compared with 30 in its previous incarnation…” Campbell’s CEO Denise M. Morrison said, “We’re closing the gap between the kitchen and our plants.”

As marketers, we give Campbell’s props. This is quite a bold move, messing around with a beloved brand. And one certainly not made haphazardly. With purchase and consumption of canned soup on the decline, and consumers seeking healthier alternatives to heavily processed foods (check out our Healthy whitepaper), Campbell’s clearly recognized the white space and emerging differentiation opportunities. Canny marketers (see what we did there?) turn to Attitude & Usage studies to uncover if in fact consumer behaviors are changing, and if so, then why and how.   What’s important when buying chicken soup? How do consumers decide what to buy or who do they purchase for? What do they use most often and why?

Campbell’s appears to have done just that, looking at current products and adjacent categories to grow share. According to the New York Times article, “…the company is banishing ingredients that today’s consumers don’t like and using advertising and social media to have a conversation with consumers about what it is doing. Acquisitions have also given Campbell toeholds in new markets and brought new ideas to the organization.”

In fact, just at the time of this blog post’s writing, the company announced that it was starting a venture capital fund to invest in food startups, hinting at opportunities inspired by farm-to-table, fresh food prep/delivery and healthy eating trends disrupting the big food industry. This comes shortly after the company announced that it was reversing its opposition to the labeling of GMO ingredients.

The risk of course is making sure that any innovation stays true to the brand consumers have grown to love. In our recent exploration of what Authenticity means to consumers, respondents told us that they are more likely to be loyal to companies they believe are authentic. Words and images associated with this conveyed ideas like “hand crafted” “simple” “pure” “natural” “trustworthy”.  Simplifying their soup is in line with these consumer expectations, and Campbell’s seems to be on sure footing. Taking the time to really understand consumer attitudes and usage can not only point to where a brand can go in familiar territory, but also how far it can push into new directions.

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