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Can Campbell make soup hot again, as cultural icons from another era search for a fresh future?

Campbell, and others like General Mills, and Kraft Heinz, are trying to find their place in a new world where consumers aren't as thrilled about processed food as they were decades ago.

Cans of Campbell Soup Co.'s popular products, which is struggling to find acceptance as consumer preference shifts toward more fresh foods and fewer ingredients in packaged foods.
Cans of Campbell Soup Co.'s popular products, which is struggling to find acceptance as consumer preference shifts toward more fresh foods and fewer ingredients in packaged foods.Read moreBloomberg

Soup Is Good Food.

Canned soup, even beyond the famous tagline, has been good enough to keep Campbell Soup Co. in the Fortune 500 club every year since the list started in 1955.

The Camden company, which turned 150 this year, still sells more than one billion cans of soup a year, and is profitable enough to pay the granddaughter of the inventor of condensed soup more than $200,000 a day in dividends.

But the stalwart, one of the few Philadelphia-area companies with national brand-name recognition, is in the middle of a fight to figure out its place in a world where consumers are less and less thrilled about canned soup than they were decades ago.

Over the last five years, revenues at the nation’s largest food and beverage companies have either fallen or marginally rose with the help of multibillion-dollar acquisitions. Besides Campbell, that group includes household names like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft Heinz, General Mills, and Kellogg.

The world has changed around processed-food companies like Campbell, founded in the 19th century and turned into cultural and commercial Goliaths in the 20th century. Starting decades ago in some cases, these venerable brands have stumbled through years of attempts to grow as consumer perceptions of quality shifted dramatically and a fragmented media landscape made it harder to reach them.

“When these companies first started and when they grew, the definition of quality for the consumer was different than the definition of quality for the consumer now,” said Ernest Baskin, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University. “Process was actually a good thing and consumers thought that things that were mass produced were A, consistent, and B, they were very safe.”

Now, Baskin said, “consumers no longer think that processed food is the epitome of quality. Particularly, Millennial preferences are shifting toward other types of products." These are products consumers perceive as less processed, he said.

Still, Campbell’s new chief executive, Mark Clouse, is confident that new life can be breathed into what he calls “fabric-of-the-nation” brands like Campbell’s Soup.

“It’s not usually the brand that’s the problem as much as it is the orientation of our company,” Clouse, who took over 10 months ago, said in an interview this month at the company’s headquarters, where 1,200 work.

Clouse entered the scene after his predecessor, Denise Morrison, made a huge push to diversify Campbell into less processed foods.

The company spent more than $2 billion on the carrot and beverage seller Bolthouse Farms and other businesses that have since been sold at a steep discount. That debacle landed Campbell in a takeover fight with activist investor Dan Loeb, who eventually won two board seats and helped pick Clouse to succeed Morrison, who departed abruptly in May 2018.

Morrison’s legacy at Campbell includes an effort to remove artificial flavors and other ingredients, even starting a new line of soups called Well Yes! in 2017 with recognizable ingredients. The idea was that clean-label soups would capture customers who wouldn’t touch Campbell’s traditional condensed soups.

Campbell’s efforts to create a less processed image haven’t prevented competitors from taking potshots at its history. For example, Rao’s Homemade, best known for pasta sauces, has a new line of “soups with nothing to hide” sold in clear glass jars — something that Campbell first did in 1986.

The billboard jab at Campbell is a lineup of five unlabeled cans with years printed underneath. The series starts in 1897, which is when John T. Dorrance invented what the company sometimes calls “the formula for condensed soup.”

Clouse defended canning: “It’s the most natural way to preserve anything beyond freezing.”

Digs at Campbell aside, Rao’s Homemade shares Clouse’s conviction that soup, which Rao’s described as a $4.3 billion market and among the top 10 categories in the supermarket, can be reinvigorated.

That may be a hard hill to climb if competitor moves are any indication.

General Mills Inc. last year wrote off more than 25 percent of the intangible value of its Progresso line of products — Campbell’s most prominent competitor in the soup aisle. In dollar terms, that was a $132 million haircut. With that move, General Mills joined the parade of companies writing down value of old staple brands. The latest of Kraft Heinz’s well-publicized write-downs were on Miracle Whip and Maxwell House, for example.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy solve," Clouse said. "That’s why I don’t think it’s an overnight fix.”

Old bullhorns don’t work

In addition to changing consumer tastes, Campbell and other food companies that established themselves in a different age must also contend with a fractured media environment.

“Think about the heyday of mass marketing, when everybody could reach 70 percent of the audience on prime-time broadcast TV," said David Tucker, head of strategy at Swellshark, a media buying company. “Big brands that had these ad campaigns became a part of culture. That’s why Warhol painted a Campbell’s Soup can.”

Brands no longer become part of culture in such a mass and universally understood way, said Tucker, who grew up in York County and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“That’s because the way that consumers can be reached is fragmented,” he said. "I think food companies, particularly when they sell a product that is as general or as mass market as soup and broths, it’s hard for them to navigate this new world where ubiquity alone doesn’t create cultural pull.”

Tucker and other experts point to thriving start-ups with niche products and a native ability to navigate the digital world as a persistent challenge for so-called Big Food companies.

Tate’s Bake Shop, known for thin, crispy chocolate-chip cookies, and Sir Kensington’s condiments are examples of companies that grew substantially through online sales before being acquired by packaged-food giants Mondelēz International and Unilever, said Howard Dorman, leader of the national food and beverage practice at the accounting and consulting firm Mazars USA.

By contrast, Dorman said, “you can’t go online to Heinz and want to order a case of ketchup. You just don’t do that.” Instead, the Heinz ketchup website links to online shopping sites for retailers like Walmart, Target, and ShopRite.

Despite all the challenges, Clouse is encouraged that the company recently increased its soup market share, for the first time in more than two years.

"That’s a good mile marker in a long journey.”