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 last year began a quest that led executives to a diverse group of cities including Portland 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 three minutes.
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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 through 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.”
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. They were asked to bring their favorite pantry items for discussion. Participants responded by bringing a mix of spices and sauces typically found at ethnic grocery stores.
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. In Boston, they even ducked into an Urban Outfitters clothing store, just to get a better sense of the overall mindset of Millennials.
After a tour of New York City’s food trucks, Campbell’s executive chef Thomas Griffiths even began toying with the idea of incorporating kimchee — the pungent pickled vegetable dish from Korea — into a soup. But he knows that will be an acquired taste.
“With something like kimchee, well, that might take a little while,” Griffiths said.
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 aren’t 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 two-and-a-half minutes then pour the soup into a bowl.
For older Millennials who may just be starting families or advancing in their careers, the company created Skillet sauces in flavors such as Green Thai Curry and Creamy Chipotle. The directions are simple: Heat up some protein and vegetables. Mix in the sauce. Serve with rice or pasta.
The idea is to give consumers the sense that they’re creating their own dishes, without them having to shop for hard-to-find ingredients or do too much tedious prep work.
As for the new products that are expected to be widely available at stores later this month, CEO Denise Morrison said the company should have a better read on how they’ll fare after its fiscal first quarter.
“The consumer will let us know if we can be more exuberant,” she said.
Executives are pushing on in the meantime.
When the company embarked on its revival efforts about a year ago, Vila, head of the company’s insights division, said they wondered if they had lost an entire generation of consumers. It turned out it wasn’t that simple; he said that consumers are still open to giving Campbell another chance, but that it’s up to the company to deliver.
“We haven’t captured them in terms of food, but we’ve hung onto them,” Vila said.
“They have memories of Campbell. They’re outdated, but they’re there.”