An across-the-board strategy including new products, innovative packaging, bold marketing departures-and even a nifty new type of in-store fixture-are making one of America's iconic food brands more relevant to food shoppers than in a generation.
The bottom line is that Campbell's overall soup sales jumped 5% last year while sales of its condensed soups, in the familiar red-and-white cans, rose by 8%, the first increase in many years. The accomplishment is little dimmed by the fact that volumes increased only 1% while price increases provided most of the dollar gains.
"Campbell Soup was like a diamond that just needed to be polished," says Paul Alexander, VP-global advertising for the Camden, N.J.-based company. "It wasn't a dying brand, but it was a brand that had lost its luster."
Campbell is the century-old leader in canned soups. But recently, this legacy only meant that Campbell remained first in a moribund category. Soup sales stagnated in the 1990s as convenience-minded consumers fled to other foods. Then, Campbell's market share actually slipped, from 74% in 1996 to less than 70% in 2001.
The company owns other food properties, including Prego sauces, Pepperidge Farm baked goods and Godiva chocolates. But when he arrived in 2001, CEO Doug Conant made resuscitation of the company's flagship brand a top priority.
Mr. Alexander's job lay open for more than a year before Mr. Conant recruited him from Procter & Gamble, where he had spent 15 years working in brand management and advertising development. Since then, Mr. Alexander, 45, has both acknowledged Campbell Soup's heritage and created new themes.
"We tried to make sure that we're balancing our talk about product improvement with reinforcing the equity of Campbell at the same time," he says.
Mr. Alexander and company have adopted a two-pronged product and marketing strategy: reiterating Campbell's determination to rule the category while at the same time broadening consumers' notions of plain old soup as a type of meal rather than just a bowl of lumpy liquid.
Soup at Hand is a great example of how Campbell has balanced these elements. Campbell rolled out this portable and "shippable" product in 2002. By the next year, Soup at Hand was available in microwaveable bowls. More flavors appeared in 2004. But Soup at Hand really didn't catch on in a big way until last year, when Campbell introduced easy-open lids and redesigned the labels in the brand's familiar red and white.
Campbell has been pushing the envelope with other new products as well. It introduced a savory line of restaurant-quality fare, called Select. It has approached kids in an unprecedented way with new products such as soup that features character shapes from The Batman TV show.
Mr. Alexander is innovating in his bailiwick to match the product folks. Campbell, whose agencies are BBDO, New York, and Y&R, New York, boosted ad spending last year to $196 million from $166 million a year earlier, according to Nielsen Monitor Plus. Part of the spending has gone to MySoup.com, which used a kids' sweepstakes and other programs to become what Campbell says was one of the most-visited packaged-goods sites on the Web last year.
But more significantly, two TV campaigns have led the way: "Possibilities," aimed at mothers, and "Mouth Fun," targeting kids.
Highlighting Campbell's new varieties and its packaging and convenience innovations, "M'm! M'm! Good! Possibilities" depicts soup consumption in a variety of settings against the backdrop of contemporary music. Kids are attracted by the "Mouth Fun" campaign that personifies soup components as rock stars and other characters, in TV ads that employ a lively mix of rock and hip-hop music.
But actually, the marketing innovation that may be doing Campbell the most good is a new form of fixture called IQ organizer. On the front of a plastic dispenser, each flavor gets a mini-billboard that is three times the size of a regular can of Campbell's. The device stacks the soup and uses gravity to make there's always a can of Cream of Mushroom in front of a searching consumer.
"We found that consumers were frustrated in the soup aisle," Mr. Alexander says. "After the cough-and-cold aisle, they told us that it was the easiest to get lost in. And sure enough: If we told people to look for Chicken with Stars soup, they'd have to take a minute to find it on the shelf. But with IQ Organizer, they can find that item in six to seven seconds. Then it's easier for them to go on and pick up a second or third item."
About 15,000 supermarkets across the country now are allowing Campbell to use IQ Organizers on their shelves. And as competitors have followed suit, the new fixtures essentially have revolutionized merchandising of the soup aisle.
"Retailers generally don't want hardware on their shelves that is branded," says Ken Harris, a consultant with Cannondale Associates, the marketing firm that borrowed the IQ Organizer idea from Campbell's Mexico subsidiary and adapted it for U.S. use. "But the results of this were just so significant."
The brand has experimented for years with bold strokes in "nutraceutical" foods and elsewhere in the growing better-for-you realm. Mr. Alexander and company are hoping that this fall's debut of a new line of low-sodium soups will help Campbell break through in this crucial type of positioning.
But Campbell may need an even bigger breakthrough to continue the brand's momentum. "They need to create the next Lunchables," says Gus Valen, president of the Valen Group, an Atlanta-based marketing consultancy that focuses on food and nutrition, referring to Oscar Mayer's revolutionary line of kids' meals.
"They've got to make $1 billion bets to change the category, and that's the most difficult step for them."