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I spent five years at Forbes writing about business and leadership, attracting nearly one million unique visitors to Forbes.com each month. While here, I assistant edited the annual World’s 100 Most Powerful Women package and helped launch and grow ForbesWoman.com. I've appeared on CBS, CNBC, MSNBC and E Entertainment and speak often at conferences and events on women's leadership topics. I graduated summa cum laude from New York University with degrees in journalism and sociology and was honored with a best in business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) in 2012. My work has appeared in Businessweek, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Aesthete and Acura Style. I live in New York City with my husband and can be found on Twitter @Jenna_Goudreau, Facebook, and Google+.

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Kicking The Can: Campbell's CEO Bets On Soup-In-A-Bag For 20-Somethings

This story appears in the December 24, 2012 issue of Forbes.

Denise Morrison (Credit: Bill Cramer)

The savior of soup is explaining how she will rescue Campbell’s from irrelevance.

“These are called ShakeDowns,” Denise Morrison, new CEO of the 143-year-old Camden, N.J. soup company, says as she fumbles with a small bag of baby carrots. “What you do is pull here at the corners.”

Tugging at the plastic, nothing happens. She pulls again and again. “You have to find just the right spot,” she says through flushed cheeks. When she’s about to give up the seal breaks, and a cluster of carrots are showered in a mixture of ranch-flavored dry spices. Mmmm. Tasty. “Only 25 calories!” she exclaims.

With just over a year under her belt running Campbell’s, Morrison, 58, is determined to shake things up. Between August 2012 and August 2013 Campbell’s will have launched more than 50 new products, including 32 new soups, up from only 3 in 2010 and 2011. She also surprised analysts with the $1.55 billion buyout of California juice-and-carrot seller Bolthouse Farms, the largest acquisition in the company’s history.

She has little choice. With its iconic red-and-white packaging and reliable favorites like Tomato and Cream of Chicken, Campbell’s soup held a special place on the American dinner table for the better part of the 20th century. But in the last few years its core soup business, which accounts for half the company’s $7.7 billion in annual revenues, has faded to 46% market share from 51% in 2007, an ever smaller part of an ever smaller food category. An ill-advised move into low-sodium formulations under Morrison’s predecessor, Doug Conant, accelerated the decline.

“They’re the market leader but have been losing share to everyone,” says Lynn Dornblaser of market research firm Mintel, primarily to main competitor General Mills General Mills, maker of Progresso soups. “The clock is ticking,” says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Canned soups traditionally do well in a down economy, he says, “yet somehow over the last decade they’ve managed to make the category so boring that people aren’t buying it.”

Morrison, who served as COO under Conant, knows they’re in trouble. On her first day as CEO in August 2011 she began implementing a new vision for the company: Stabilize the soup and simple meals businesses, expand internationally, grow faster in healthy beverages and baked snacks–and add back the salt.

“Reducing sodium was the right thing to do,” Morrison says. “It’s just not the only thing we should have been doing. If we’re really going to win, then we’ve got to be the most innovative food company.”

A mother of two grown daughters, Morrison came to Campbell’s from Kraft Foods in 2003. She knows demographics are working against the company: Campbell’s sells well with the boomer generation but not with its kids.

Millennials, those ages 18 to 34, now constitute 25% of the U.S. population, or approximately 80 million people. “There are a lot of them,” says Mark Alexander, president of Campbell’s North America. “And they spend a lot of money.”

Early on in her tenure Morrison dispatched Campbell’s employees to hipster hubs, including Austin, Tex., Portland, Ore., London and Paris, to find out what all those potential customers wanted.

They learned Gen Y is globally connected, culturally diverse, college educated and underemployed. They are also the dine-out generation, routinely eating Mexican, Indian and Asian cuisines once considered exotic.

“They go through life hunting out and gathering different experiences,” says Charles Vila, vice president of consumer insights. “They sample foods in the same way they sample jobs.”

In August Campbell’s launched Go Soups, a six-flavor line in plastic pouches meant to convey freshness while capturing millennials’ adventurous tastes, restless spirits–and food-shopping dollars. Go Soups are premium-priced at $2.99 per pouch versus $1.09 for a can of soup.

So far the plan is working. Sales are up 8% in the latest quarter from the same period in 2011, but the soup marketing campaign–with a snazzy Tumblr-inspired website and a partnership with music download service Spotify–strikes some as deeply pandering. “The Greatest Generation stopped Hitler, the baby boomers stopped the Vietnam War,” comedian Stephen Colbert riffed in mid-November. “This generation will go down in history for demanding different soup.”

Of course, soup-in-a-bag for twentysomethings isn’t Morrison’s only plan. In the next decade 70% to 75% of global consumer growth will come from emerging markets, according to McKinsey, while only 3% of Campbell’s business is there today. Morrison is building out existing businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Australia; ramping up exports to Europe, Asia and the Middle East; and growing a presence in China.

And with Bolthouse under the same roof, which already provides ingredients for Campbell’s soups and V8 beverages, the company now has a new distribution path to the produce section, which is gaining ground as consumers seek more fresh packaged foods, a $12 billion category.

Still, says University of Michigan’s Gordon, “they have to hit that millennial group or they’ll be out of business in ten years. Not doing it would be horrendous. Will it turn around the company? No. But it keeps the lights on.”

Morrison, who attended a February R&D meeting in a cheetah-print jacket, urging the team to pick up the pace, clearly knows the stakes. “This isn’t just building a new house,” she says. “It’s putting in a foundation for the future.” If there is a future, that is.

What Soup’s For You?

Campbell’s Canned Condensed Soup
Introduced: 1897
Price: $1.09 per can
Size: 10-11 ounces
Flavors: Tomato, Chicken Noodle, Cream of Mushroom
Target consumer: Baby boomers, 48 to 66
Shelf life: Two years

Campbell’s Go Soup
Introduced: August 2012
Price: $2.99 per pouch
Size: 14 ounces
Flavors: Creamy Red Pepper with Smoked Gouda, Spicy Chorizo & Pulled Chicken with Black Beans
Target consumer: Millennials, 18 to 34
Shelf life: One year

Readers: Would you try the new Go Soups? Do you think targeting the emerging millennial group is a smart idea? And will Morrison’s efforts to remake the 143-year-old company boost sales?

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  • Open User Open User 2 years ago

    test test

  • elmer elmer 2 years ago

    There is a continent-size mat of plastic debris floating in the Pacific Ocean. These Millennial Woman Serving bags will make a nice accent to that emergent art form. With the convenience of pre-added water, at $2.99 it’s a steal over the dreary, old-fashioned $1.09 cans. Long-term plastic decay should not affect the taste notably, either.

    And the name “Go Soup”, great branding. No way is anyone gonna make fun of that.

  • kelvarnsen kelvarnsen 2 years ago

    No soup for you! Come back one year.

  • Sean Tunctan Sean Tunctan 2 years ago

    Money Down The Drain, in layman’s terms. An interesting sideline would be, how much for the liquidizer in stainless steel to blend all of the fresh ingredients that have been genetically modified and stored in a warehouse for the past two years. Or if a nut in your soup doesn’t wet your appetite, how about the fixed pricing structure within free range downloadable applications that choke on the firmware. The advantages of having a Steak Dinner is that you could use all of the above as Dressings!

  • kovalb kovalb 2 years ago

    Keep the can, lose the BPA.
    I love their soup but am concerned about health effects from BPA. I am probably not the only one.

  • Loida Rosario Loida Rosario 2 years ago

    Sure, it makes sense to make soup easier to consume as a ‘fourth meal’, especially on-the-go.

  • Chuck Chuck 2 years ago

    Special soups in Cans are over priced and way to much sugar in the Tomato. The bagged soups are different but certainly a long way from Homemade.

    Instead make some good TV Dinners like they used to make but better than the Fifties. Most Frozen Dinners today are full of Carbs, Pastas, and such.

    Campbell is in a Good position to really provide outstanding Foods.

  • Mario. Mario. 1 year ago

    I believe I’m in the age group discussed. What do I want?

    0) Does it have to be a soup? (I prefer hot chocolate or a main course when on the run.)

    1) No ugly metal cans: The cultural image of a homeless person holding a can is strong. Everywhere in the world.

    2) Does it have to be soup? For example, in Europe has been an explosion of dried meals to be quick-cooked, just add water, oil and ingredients from the pack in the correct order. Some of those meals had so carefully prepared ingredients that the taste was so amazing… but others were not so good. This was nice during travel when no other options were available.

    My advice:
    1) Always, and I mean ALWAYS keep the taste and quality.
    2) Also have products with more adequate price.
    3) Learn from your opponents, eat their products. (Even if it means sampling several thousands of them! Just do it! That means several continents too.)
    4) Dried products bring advantages to you, shops, customers.
    5) Do a list of number 3 – you may even recognize a pattern or any undervalued company with superior products.

    1B) Learn how to help the customers without providing fully cooked products.
    That may mean: if there is a component of your meal the customer would like to have without cooking it by herself/himself, why not selling it as a standalone product? Product margins are lower, but you get the volume. This strategy already paid off: one company started selling the base for bechamel sauce (that is salted flour fried over lard or other fat) in pellets, and even experienced cooks started using it – it saves time! Other brands followed with their own.

    How to use this? Find a product that can be used in everyday cooking, for example fried onion slices, or fried chopped onions; It is a great art to make them all evenly fried, but even greater art is drying them afterwards in a form so that they can be recovered again for cooking. Simply: make good cooking easily reproducible! Today, people want to spend time away from the kitchen, so anything that requires careful waiting while cooking is likely to get burned.

    When you make a trial product, let someone cook, invite their unsuspecting friends and watch reaction, then ask. Do it with ALL your products.