Campbell updates recipes to keep up with changing consumer taste

The old chicken noodle soup (left) and the new one. Campbell is paring back on additives and artificial ingredients in a bid to keep up with food trends and halt a gradual sales decline.
The old chicken noodle soup (left) and the new one. Campbell is paring back on additives and artificial ingredients in a bid to keep up with food trends and halt a gradual sales decline.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY • Food companies tinker with the signature products in their portfolios at their own risk - and few products are as classic as Campbell's chicken noodle soup.

Now, Campbell Soup is altering its famous broth, with the new recipe appearing first in a limited- edition line in cans festooned with Chewbacca and other figures from the new Star Wars film.

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 (sold last year in cans featuring the Avengers).

Ms Denise M. Morrison, chief executive of Campbell, said: "We're closing the gap between the kitchen and our plants."

Under her leadership, which began in 2011, Campbell has moved quickly to address changing trends in the marketplace for food and to try to staunch the gradual decline in unit sales, a measurement of the number of cans of soup sold.

The company is banishing ingredients that today's consumers do not 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 organisation.

"Before, when we talked about our business, we talked about how many cases we shipped," Ms Morrison said. "Today, we're talking about our food" - as in what is in it, where it comes from and what effect it has on the environment.

Changing those traditional recipes carries quite a bit of risk.

"It's a delicate balance because these products are beloved," said Mr Charles Vila, vice-president for consumer and customer insights at Campbell.

"Their profile has become very defined in the consumer mind over the years, so any change we make is carefully considered."

The company also has an incentive to bolster the anaemic sales of soup, its core product.

Globally, soup sales peaked in 2012 at US$16.2 billion (S$23 billion) and have stagnated since, last year ringing up US$16 billion, according to Euromonitor, a consumer research firm.

It estimates that sales will fall further this year, to a little more than US$15 billion. Reasons for soup's slump are hard to pin down, said Ms Emily Balsamo, a research analyst at Euromonitor.

"It's a similar situation in a lot of categories, I would say, where I think there's a lot of distrust of larger, established food companies," she said. "Within the soup category, and even within canned soup category, smaller brands such as Annie's and Amy's Naturals or Hain Celestials are doing relatively better. Maybe it has something to do with them being largely organic."

She added that early sales of Campbell's new line of organic soup sold in cartons are strong.

Ms Morrison speaks more candidly than most of her peers about the effect that changing consumer preferences and demographics are having on Campbell and other large food companies, which she described as "seismic shifts".

"There are 80 million millennials now and they're shopping and thinking differently about food and in a way that is influential," she said.

She said changes in the family are also challenging food companies. "Families now are multicultural, multigenerational, single parent, same sex, mixed and traditional."

She also noted that the numbers of middle-class consumers, who powered sales for so long, are shrinking. Campbell is retooling its traditional portfolio as rapidly as it can.

It took two months of intense work to come up with the balance of ingredients that would produce a broth and noodles that tasted the same or better than the soup that had been produced the same way since 2011, when the group tweaked the spices and reduced the beta carotene used to impart colour.

Food scientists and chefs are tinkering with its classic tomato soup.

Mostly, that is about replacing high fructose corn syrup with sugar. But that changes the taste and texture slightly - one test version was less sweet, more tangy and slightly less silky in the mouth.

"Will that make a difference to consumers who've eaten this soup for years and love it just the way it is?" Mr Jeff George, vice-president for research and development said. "That's the question we ask ourselves over and over again."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Campbell updates recipes to keep up with changing consumer taste'. Print Edition | Subscribe