Campbell Soup tailors menu to suit Millennials' taste buds
CAMDEN, N.J. — If your lunch still consists of a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, chances are you grew up using a typewriter.
Generations of Americans have moved on from Campbell's condensed chicken noodle and tomato soups in search of heartier varieties with more sophisticated flavors. Now the world's largest soup company is racing to do the same.
Campbell Soup Co. last year began a quest that led executives to a diverse group of cities, including Portland, Ore., and London, to figure out how to make soups that appeal to younger, finicky customers. In the year ahead, the 143-year-old company plans to roll out 50 products, such as Moroccan Style Chicken and Spicy Chorizo. The ingredients may surprise those used to a plain bowl of chicken soup: tomatillos, coconut milk and shiitake mushrooms.
The new soups also won't look like the big, gelatinous chunks that came in the steel cans that built Campbell into an iconic brand. These soups come in plastic pouches that are easy to open and heat up in a microwave in less than 3 minutes.
The remake could be a do-or-die task for Campbell. Overall canned soup consumption is down 13 percent over the past decade, according to the research firm Euromonitor International, as fresh soups have become more widely available at supermarkets and restaurants. And Campbell now has about 53 percent of the market, down from 67 percent a decade earlier.
Campbell's changes also illustrate how difficult it is for brands that appeal to older customers to become relevant to Millennials. This group, defined as those ages 18 to early 30s, is heavily sought after by companies and marketers. But Millennials have little in common with their parents, whether it's their tastes, eating habits or cooking methods.
“I grew up with salt, pepper and ketchup,” said Chuck Vila, who heads Campbell's customer insights division, which surveys the marketplace for trends. “These guys are playing around with really interesting spices from around the world.”
George Veszpremy, 32, a music director at a radio station in Boston, has fond memories of his mother sending him to school in the morning with a thermos of Campbell's chicken noodle.
“As a kid, you eat it, and it's great. It served the purpose at the time,” said Veszpremy, noting that the soups were a cheap way for his single mother to give him a quick, comforting meal.
Looking back, he said, he realizes that the soup was not the best quality: The noodles were soggy and thin, the chicken pieces were minuscule, and there were no vegetables.
Veszpremy said his tastes have evolved: He sticks to homemade or the soup bar at the supermarket.
To understand what makes Millennials like Veszpremy tick, Campbell executives turned into anthropologists.
The company dispatched executives to London, Nashville, Portland and other designated “hipster hubs” to meet with younger consumers face-to-face. Dozens were recruited to participate in “live-alongs,” in which executives ate meals with them in their homes, peeked in their pantries and tagged along on trips to the grocery store.
In other cases, couples were invited out to “eat-alongs” at trendy restaurants to talk about food in a casual atmosphere.
A staff of about a dozen Campbell chefs traveled for inspiration as well. In New York City, the group browsed in spice shops, bakeries and ethnic grocery stores.
The field work led executives to two seemingly divergent conclusions: First, cuisines once considered exotic — Thai, Indian, Brazilian — have become the norm. At the same time, years of dining out mean younger consumers are not as skilled at making meals from scratch, particularly when it comes to those very ethnic flavors.
“They can't replicate the foods they enjoy when they go out,” said Darren Serrao, who heads innovation for Campbell.
That realization inspired Campbell's Go plastic soup pouches, which come in flavors such as Coconut Curry, Creamy Red Pepper and Golden Lentil. Consumers tear open the pouch, stick the bag in the microwave for about 2 1⁄2 minutes, then pour the soup into a bowl.