Campbell Soup Company, long the dominant force in the American canned-soup market as well as a player in many other food and beverage categories, saw consistent sales losses in its all-important original Campbell’s soup line throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. These condensed soups still constituted the best-selling soup brand in the country and had one of the most recognizable labels in the world, the iconic red-and-white can, but condensed soup was being progressively upstaged by ready-to-eat brands (including Campbell’s own Chunky soup) prized for their convenience. Having unsuccessfully tried numerous tactics in the attempt to revive its core business, Campbell’s in 2003 hit on a combination of manufacturing, packaging, shelving, and communications tactics that positioned it to make an integrated bid, on behalf of all of its soup products, for consumers’ attention. A major part of this effort was a decisive change in marketing tone, targeting, and strategy, embodied in the ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ campaign of 2003–4.
‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead,’’ crafted by Campbell’s longtime ad agency BBDO New York, used an estimated $100 million budget and employed the conventions of reality television, which was extremely popular at the time, in a series of commercials designed to encourage the consideration of Campbell’s full range of soups as replacements for a variety of meal types and snack foods. The spots were hosted by the pushy yet charming Gordon Elliott, the star of his own Food Network reality show, in which he stopped passersby and knocked on strangers’ doors, asking them to try dishes that he himself cooked. The Campbell’s commercials used this same premise—with Elliott intruding on ordinary families at mealtime, drivers of cars stopped at intersections, and the homes of celebrities—in order to suggest the consumption of a particular Campbell’s soup variety.
‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ made a crucial contribution to the ongoing attempt to revitalize the Campbell Soup Company, an attempt that saw its first signs of success during the campaign’s run. In 2004 the company’s famed condensed-soup line saw its first sales gains since the 1980s, surprising analysts who had predicted the brand’s continued decline.
Campbell’s soup, long one of America’s most recognizable packaged foods, fell precipitously out of favor with consumers in the 1990s and early 2000s. The demand for ever-more-convenient food products translated into the ascendance of ready-to-eat soups such as the Campbell Soup Company’s own Chunky and Select brands and General Mills’ Progresso. Such products took market share away from the Campbell’s condensed varieties, which were sold in the famous red-and-white can—an ironic development considering the fact that a primary attribute of Campbell’s condensed soups had always been the ease with which they could be prepared. Though Chunky and Select posted consistent sales gains, the core brand, condensed soup, accounted for approximately 70 percent of the company’s soup operations and 35 percent of its profits, so Campbell remained committed to reviving it. In the 1990s and early 2000s the marketing strategy for Campbell’s soup—with creative work chiefly crafted by ad agency BBDO New York—underwent drastic revision almost yearly, as did the roster of Campbell executives charged with reviving the brand. Industry observers characterized these changes as desperate attempts to update the product’s image, and corporate analysts predicted that the declines in condensed-soup sales would continue indefinitely. In 2002 Campbell launched a new product line, Soup at Hand, America’s first ‘‘sippable’’ soup, which was packaged in a microwaveable container designed to fit in a person’s hand for on-the-go consumption. This increase in portability, positioning soup to compete against snack and fast foods generally perceived as less wholesome and nutritious, translated into the company’s most successful product launch since the introduction of the Chunky variety almost 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, the company’s new president of U.S. soup, Jeremy Fingerman, encouraged innovation in Campbell’s soup advertising. Long pitched to stay-at-home moms via wholesome TV imagery, the brand in late 2002 targeted college students with wry outdoor ads in select cities—
Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati—as a means of testing the core brand’s ability to grow market share outside its traditional audience. In 2003 Campbell’s attempt to assure consumers that soup was, as Fingerman put it in an interview with Advertising Age, ‘‘the superior simpler meal,’’ gained further momentum. It included such measures as the reformulation of the condensed soups’ recipes, the addition of pop-top lids to the condensed-soup cans, the introduction of new Soup at Hand flavors, the offering of Chunky and Select in microwaveable containers, and a renewed focus on supermarket shelving strategies.
‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ was rooted in the company’s attempt to convince consumers that soup was a better option for those seeking a simple and healthy meal. BBDO and Campbell used reality-based TV spots, some of which were scripted and some of which were not, to update the soup brands’ images and make them seem relevant to ‘‘today’s diverse consumer population,’’ as president of Campbell North America, Larry McWilliams, said in a press release. The reality-based approach was, industry observers noted, a significant departure from Campbell’s heritage as a traditional advertiser targeting stay-at-home moms with images of wholesome domesticity.
The commercials featured a single spokesperson, the Australian-born Gordon Elliott, star of the Food Network show Door Knock Dinners. Modeled on that program, in which the pushy but charismatic Elliott confronted people at home or on the street and asked them to eat a meal that he had prepared, the Campbell’s spots showed Elliott urging strangers and celebrities to try Campbell’s soup products in place of other snack or meal options. Individual commercials targeted different audiences, depending on the object of Elliott’s attentions. While the spot that showed Elliott intruding on the home of TV personality and restaurateur B. Smith appealed to adult women, spots in which Elliott focused his antics on younger people were meant to appeal to kids. For instance, Elliott played basketball with the 16-year-old rapper Bow Wow in one commercial for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Other spots supported newly developed Soup at Hand varieties expressly developed for children, such as Pizza, Taco, and Mexican noodle flavors. The campaign marked Campbell’s first sustained targeting of children.
In addition to being an internally significant change in strategy, the fact that Campbell aimed its soup advertising at children was a noteworthy development in the intensifying competition with rival soup brand Progresso. Progresso’s most successful recent advertising campaign, and its first to include national TV commercials, attempted to make the case that Campbell’s was kids’ fare but that Progresso—which was not condensed and claimed, for instance, such attributes as white meat and chunky vegetables in its chicken noodle variety—was worthy of adult palates. Launched in 1998, the Progresso campaign was called ‘‘Discover the Better Taste of Progresso,’’ and it targeted women aged 25 to 54. One TV spot showed a male office worker eating Chicken & Stars soup from a bowl, which was positioned alongside a juvenile lunchbox and a can clearly meant to suggest Campbell’s. A female coworker approached the man and said, ‘‘You know, Chicken & Stars used to be my favorite. Then I learned to ride a two-wheeler. Come on, you’re an adult now. There’s a better tasting soup.’’ Print ads took the comparative concept even further, identifying Campbell’s by name. Progresso sales climbed by 12 percent during the 1998–9 soup season—fall through spring—and research indicated that a large proportion of these sales increases could be attributed to the campaign. Progresso’s gains were likewise in line with the industry-wide trend away from condensed soups. By 2003 Progresso’s annual sales had climbed to $424 million, a marked improvement over its 1998 total of $258 million.
Progresso’s most direct competitor was not Campbell’s condensed lines, however, but Campbell’s Chunky brand, which likewise employed messages of food quality and flourished at least partly at the expense of the original Campbell’s brand. Chunky’s most recent advertising retained the long-running tagline ‘‘The soup that eats like a meal’’ and featured professional football players being accosted by their mothers (usually played by actors), who used various humorous ruses to ensure that their sons were eating Chunky soup. Launched in 1997, the campaign ran for many years, corresponding with a period of enormous Chunky sales growth, despite the fact that industry critics typically disliked the spots’ lack of subtlety and unsophisticated attempts at humor.
‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead,’’ which ran on television during the 2003–4 soup season—fall through spring—at an estimated cost of $100 million, represented a sizable risk for Campbell, because it departed from the company’s previous advertising in more ways than one. The tonal dissimilarity of the irreverent, reality-based TV spots to the emotional, family-oriented advertising of Campbell’s more successful past was perhaps the most obvious change in the eyes of consumers, but the unification of Campbell’s full line of soups under one advertising platform was an important strategic shift as well. Larry McWilliams stated in a press release, ‘‘[W]e’re single-minded in our focus to change how people think about soup. A unified platform will maximize the impact and efficiency of both our message and our media buying . . . Our aim is to shake consumers up with a very different creative effort that will get them thinking about soup in new ways.’’ The campaign also featured far more individual spots than a typical Campbell’s campaign, which allowed the ad agency to use a variety of different pitches tailored to specific targets and products. This comparatively drastic rethinking of the company’s advertising strategy was supported by the changes in product formulation, packaging, and shelving that had recently been announced.
The TV spots were shot on location with small crews using handheld video cameras instead of film, a strategy aimed at generating a look of immediacy that was in keeping with the reality TV shows of the time. The first spot was called ‘‘Anthem,’’ and it showed host Elliott confronting a succession of ordinary people in an office setting and on a street, asking them to try the Campbell’s products newly available in microwaveable containers. Other unscripted commercials showed Elliott barging into real families’ homes during meals and arguing that they should ‘‘Make it Campbell’s instead’’ and putting Soup at Hand containers in the hands of drivers stopped at street intersections. Reflecting on the usefulness of these encounters for the purposes of advertising, Elliott told Advertising Age, ‘‘Nothing works better than letting real people tell you what they think.’’
These commercials alternated with others featuring celebrities who were paired with specific brands in ways that leveraged the appeal each had among particular groups of TV viewers. Elliott arrived at the home of trendsetting New York restaurateur B. Smith in one commercial, with the suggestion that she try Campbell’s Select Italian Wedding soup, one of the company’s most popular upmarket offerings, rather than cold sandwiches. In another commercial Elliott traveled to the Indiana home of the Dilley sextuplets, where he demonstrated for the benefit of the six siblings and their parents various ways of creating interesting new meals by adding common household mixings and toppings to Campbell’s Tomato Soup. In the spot featuring rapper Bow Wow, Elliott and the 16-year-old star squared off for a game of one-on-one basketball, with the winner to receive a meal of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. In a slight twist on the other commercials’ concept, one spot showed Sandra Lee, who had her own Food Network show and was the author of the best-selling cookbook Semi-Homemade Meals (in which she offered recipes that used ready-made products such as Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup), instructing Elliott in the preparation of Campbell’s Seafood Tomato Alfredo.
The commercials depended, for much of their effectiveness, on Elliott’s personality and his ability to generate off-the-cuff humor and enthusiasm for the brand. Leavening his brazen intrusiveness with charm and poise, Elliott was able to disarm participants in the unscripted spots, and he showed considerable personal magnetism onscreen. His behavior in the commercials was meant to seem a daring update of the long-established advertising practice of employing spokespeople.
M’M! M’M! GOOD! TO GO
In early 2003, prior to the ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ campaign, Campbell unveiled a marketing, packaging, and promotions platform uniting its portable lines of soups. Recasting the well-known Campbell’s slogan, ‘‘M’m! M’m! Good!’’—which dated from the 1930s—the ‘‘M’m! M’m! Good! To Go’’ initiative consisted of the introduction of singleserve microwaveable soups as well as the inclusion of the Campbell’s Soup at Hand ‘‘sippable’’ brand under the new ‘‘To Go’’ banner. Packaging and in-store materials directed attention to the convenienceenhancing innovations of the ‘‘M’m! M’m! Good! To Go’’ products, and a significant portion of Campbell’s overall advertising budget was devoted to spreading awareness about the new and repackaged products. The ‘‘M’m! M’m! Good! To Go’’ soups represented one of the most promising avenues for Campbell’s growth, and their inclusion in the umbrella ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ campaign increased the credibility of that broader effort’s primary claim, which was that Campbell’s products were a convenient and wholesome substitute for a wide range of meals and snacks.
The ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ concept remained in place through 2004, and the company put particular emphasis on extending the appeals to children, preteens, and teens that had first been tested in the Elliott-helmed commercials. Campbell also adapted the ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ theme to its new Carb Request soups, aimed at low-carbohydrate dieters, and to a series of Soup at Hand efforts aimed at women who tended to skip or skimp on lunch. Overall Campbell’s change in approach—from marketing within the soup category to marketing its products as the answer to a wide variety of snack and mealtime occasions—was credited with spurring the company’s long-awaited turnaround, and this change was substantially driven by the ‘‘Make It Campbell’s Instead’’ campaign. In 2004, for the first time since the 1980s, Campbell’s core condensed-soup brand not only stabilized its losses but also showed sales gains, topping the $1 billion mark in total sales. Campbell’s company-wide sales growth began outpacing analysts’ predictions, and the company was finally credited with arriving at a workable model for generating sustained success in an evolving soup marketplace.