It was the corporate version of a coming-out party Tuesday at the Camden headquarters of Campbell Soup Co., as incoming chief executive Denise Morrison unveiled plans to sprinkle new life onto the 142-year-old company with an age-old ingredient: salt.
Chief among the chief-to-be's plans, as explained to nearly 100 investment analysts, is to sell more soup to U.S. customers by putting more salt back into the mix.
"It's not just reducing sodium," she said in an interview after her presentation to analysts, who were treated to Pepperidge Farms snacks while assembled at Campbell's $93 million headquarters facility. "You need to provide products that taste good."
In addition to altering a number of recipes, Morrison said, Campbell's will set about developing new products for a big pool of potential buyers: Hispanics and the young-adult children of its core customers, baby boomers.
And despite her first major decision two weeks ago to end Campbell's operations in Russia after four years - a restructuring that eliminates 130 positions in Camden and 770 worldwide - she said the company would expand into Latin America and Asia.
The decisions to add salt and to drop Russia from the menu both got high praise from analyst Jonathan Feeney.
"That is awesome," said Feeney, senior food and beverage analyst at Janney Capital Markets in Center City. "That is what is needed. In a nutshell, low sodium was overdone.
"We're entering a period of time when consumers need comfort food," he said, "and they need it at the best price possible."
Feeney said Morrison's announcement on salt reflected what customers buy today: "A ton of frozen pizza and a ton of frozen meals with less-nutritional content are flying off the shelves. I credit Denise for getting the memo."
Campbell's soup sales have suffered of late, despite conventional wisdom that during tough economic times, shoppers would flock to them.
To jump-start things, Morrison said, the company would introduce 46 new recipes for existing soups. Thirty-one will be in the Select Harvest line, inspired by a low-sodium push begun by Campbell's in 2003, she said.
Select Harvest has been popular, particularly its Healthy Request subcategory. But the company has received taste complaints about regular Select Harvest soups.
"We have undergone recipe redesign and improved the taste of those products," Morrison said. "We've added salt. We have also, we've worked with the whole recipe . . . flavor design and ingredients."
There is an overall push to create new products, too. The company is rolling out one inspired by the popularity of its Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers: crustless bread cut into the shape of a goldfish, to be used for sandwiches.
Campbell's said Tuesday that it would pump $30 million into building a 34,000-square-foot innovation center at its Pepperidge Farm headquarters in Norwalk, Conn. And in an effort to get noticed by the tens of millions of young adults born after 1979, the company is introducing Slow Kettle soups, "with exquisite taste, different, more exotic recipes," Morrison said.
She relinquishes her role as chief operating officer Aug. 1 and becomes CEO, replacing Doug Conant, who joined Campbell's in January 2001.
The new approach would affect profitability in the short term, the company warned, but would pay off down the road.