CEO Profile: Campbell exec nears 'extraordinary' goal

Soup rival Progresso has relentlessly needled Campbell and led the way with healthier, ready-to-heat varieties. Campbell has a way to go in reducing sodium and calories and eliminating MSG.

The cookie division of its pricy Pepperidge Farm brand is stagnant in a hobbling economy.

While the future for Campbell may be growth in Russia and China, the present is not: 99% of soups consumed in both countries are home-made. But Conant can't ignore the stats: Americans eat 15 billion servings of soup annually, Russians eat 32 billion, and the Chinese eat 300 billion.

That's why Conant has sent Campbell workers to study the Russian and Chinese habits, even live in some homes. "We're the world's largest soup company, but only in 6% of the world's soup markets."

The 4 'musts' of consumer products

Conant is intent on making Campbell more global and more contemporary, as well as simplifying the company by focusing on the core product lines.

"The challenge is for us to be relevant," he says. "We've been around for 139 years, but that's not relevant to consumers."

There are, he says, four "musts" for consumer products: value, wellness, quality and convenience. After years of ups and downs, he says, Campbell now has at least a beachhead in all four:

•Value. Since the financial meltdown, nothing's been more core to consumers than value. And at an average cost of 52 cents a serving for its condensed soups, he says, "We're a value food company."

Its ads now call Campbell's Soup "the original dollar menu." A joint ad with Kraft Foods touts a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup and a Kraft grilled-cheese sandwich as a "wallet friendly" meal.

Some grocers recently ran price promotions for Campbell's condensed soup at $10 for 10 cans.

•Wellness. Under Conant, the soupmaker long criticized for having too much sodium, too many calories and too much MSG in some soups has been shedding all three.

Campbell's "low-sodium" soup line was the most successful product introduction of 2007, reports researcher Information Resources. It cannibalized sales from Campbell's classic line, but it put Campbell's in line with many health-conscious shoppers.

Last fall, Campbell rolled out Select Harvest soups that target women: The soups have fewer calories, no artificial flavors and no MSG.

Conant says Campbell hopes to remove MSG from all its soups "over the next few years" and now has 124 that are MSG-free, vs. 87 with MSG.

Still, it's been pressed hard on wellness by Progresso, whose lower-calorie soups and Campbell-mocking ads have given the General Mills brand a hearty share of ready-to-heat soup sales.

Beyond soups, Campbell's wellness efforts have included expansion of the V8 vegetable juice line with V8 V-Fusion veggie and fruit juice blends. Conant says it'll be the company's next billion-dollar brand. Rolling out in the spring: V8 V-Fusion Goji Raspberry juice. Goji is a Chinese-grown berry that is hotter-than-hot in the health food world.

Better-for-you also is a big part of the selling proposition for Pepperidge Farm, including lower-sodium breads rolled out last year and even whole-grain Goldfish back in 2005.

•Quality. A clear signal of Campbell's hunt for quality came last summer, when it bought the Wolfgang Puck line of organic soups from Country Gourmet Foods. Campbell may extend that brand into non-soup areas, Conant says.

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