|New-product sales in 2007|
1. Campbell's Reduced-Sodium Soup
2. Birds Eye Streamfresh Frozen Vegetables
3. Vault Sports Drink (regular and diet)
4. Gatorade A.M. Sports Drinks
General Mills Fiber One Chewy Bars
Source: Information Resources Inc.
"I would say actually that is really sexy," said Lynn Dornblaser, a senior analyst at Mintel Corp., of the lower-salt soups, noting that "Campbell has played with low-sodium soups for years and years."
Indeed, the healthful facelift has been a long time coming for the century-old brand. "We refer to it as a journey," said Juli Mandel Sloves, senior manager-nutrition and wellness communications at Campbell. Soup accounted for about $3.5 billion -- or nearly half of Campbell's $7.4 billion in total sales last year, making innovation in the category critical to the company's future growth.
Ms. Mandel Sloves noted that her company introduced low-sodium soup in the 1960s, but the products, with just 150 mg of sodium per serving, were targeted to consumers who had suffered "a cardiac event."
Traditional canned soup can have sodium levels above 900 mg per half-can serving. To be called "healthy," soup must have 480 mg or less. Campbell tried to fill the bill with Healthy Request soups in the mid-1980s, but complaints about the taste quickly ensued.
"One of the biggest challenges is there's no substitute for salt; nothing tastes like salt, and the human body needs salt," Ms. Mandel Sloves said. "And most people think if it's lower in sodium then what's it going to have less taste, so that's been a huge challenge as well."
So two years ago, when the company found a form of sea salt that was lower in sodium and would work well with its soups, it gave creative agency Y&R, New York, the task of making it sell. The trick would be in convincing consumers that lower-sodium versions can taste like the soups from their childhood.
"You're already preaching to the choir," said James Caporimo, creative director of the Campbell business at Y&R. "Most of these people are pretty well-versed on the issues because their doctor told them they have to do it. They still want to eat, still want to enjoy food, but probably it's sort of drudgery."
Hiring a 'Soprano'
The agency hired Matt Servitto, an actor who played an FBI agent on "The Sopranos," to be the chef in commercials, rescuing soup eaters from the so-called land of bland.
It also stepped up its advertising, upping soup support nearly 30% in 2007 to $412 million from $316 million in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Early results have been promising. Sales have been 55% incremental to the category, and wellness soups and broths now account for $650 million of Campbell's retail sales, up from $100 million in 2003. Campbell is encouraged enough to bet heavily on its low-sodium platform, introducing 22 additional lower-sodium varieties for the 2008 soup season and planning to overhaul of its 36-variety Soup Select line for 2009.
Campbell CEO Douglas Conant told the Consumer Analysts Group of New York last month that the company's innovations "have clearly rejuvenated the soup category."
"Our convenience, wellness and premium initiatives, our blending and flavoring capabilities, our marketing prowess have had a major impact," he said, adding that "condensed-soup innovation has reversed years of declines."
Even so, Campbell executives at the conference were hammered on their marketing strategy and accused by analysts of getting caught flat-footed by archrival General Mills' Progresso, which has built credentials for its brand as a stand-alone diet regimen.
"Over 65 million people in this country suffer from hypertension, and with the graying of America, that number is going to grow," said Denise Morrison, president North American soups, sauces and beverages. "And so to be on the cutting edge of sodium reduction is going to be important for our food."
However, Mr. Conant conceded that while the soup category in general is lower in fat and calories than many of its packaged supermarket counterparts, his company took the opportunities in light soups "for granted." But this won't necessarily mean an increase in marketing or advertising support.
"We just have to market it better," he said. "And we will."
Leading the new-product packIt may not be the most exciting list you've ever seen, but Information Resources Inc. maintains that its new-product pacesetters in the food category demonstrate consumers' shift to more-healthful products. After all, the top three sellers are lower-sodium soup, frozen vegetables that can be steamed in the microwave and fiber bars for on-the-go boomers.
Even so, Sheila McCusker, editor of IRI's Times & Trends magazine, said that with all of the "focus on innovation and investment, it is a bit shocking that so few make it" to the crucial $100 million sales benchmark for a successful new product.
One reason may be the shift toward more-healthful fare, which is a good news/bad news scenario for marketers. "Heart-healthy, immunity is a whole new area ... the whole notion that what you eat can and prevent you from catching colds," she said. "It's going to drive growth in mature categories, so this is very exciting."
On the other hand, some healthy niches can be limiting. "We're going to start seeing more trending downward in terms of size of new brands as they become more and more targeted," she said.
Ms. McCusker still expects to see a new food or two surpassing $100 million in sales each year. Last year was unusual in that only one product, Campbell's reduced-salt soups, reached that threshold. Usually there are at least two in a given year, and she has never seen more than three.