Campbell Soup: Using Nostalgia to Engage Customers

October 1, 2006

WHEN IT COMES TO tugging at the heartstrings of modern consumers, Paul Alexander knows there's one asset that no amount of advertising dollars can buy or invent: honest-to-goodness nostalgia. To him, nostalgia means the romantic connection customers feel with a product on a visceral level. It often
evokes a sense of loyalty and trust and can take generations to build.

As the vice president of global advertising for the Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, N.J., Alexander is among a new breed of marketing innovators who are using nostalgia to engage customers in a more impactful way. It doesn't hurt that Campbell's product line has been a staple in American households since 1869. Packaged in the famous red-and white labeled cans, many of the soups - chicken noodle, tomato, vegetable beef, chicken with rice, chicken with stars, alphabet, and cream of mushroom - are considered cultural icons.

"One of the fortunate things we have going for us is that people want to identify themselves with our brand," Alexander says. "We are part of the history of chicken noodle soup that made you feel better when you were a kid. There's a therapeutic quality and a positive memory attached."

Reawakening a Giant
Playing the nostalgia card, however, also demands that a company constantly look forward as it asks faithful consumers to remember the past. While Campbell's dominance of the soup market is the stuff of legend (the company outsells its nearest competitor in the U.S. by a ratio of 7-to-1), it hasn't come without  competition in recent years. As consumers shifted to a variety of other kinds of hot, convenience oriented meals, Campbell's hold on the soup market declined from 74 percent in 1996 to 70 percent in 2001.

There was chatter from some in the industry that by resting on its laurels, Campbell was in danger of being perceived as old-fashioned and passé. When Alexander arrived in 2001, after 15 years with the Procter & Gamble Co., he didn't find a company that had lost its edge, he says. Rather, he discovered a core business strategy that had become distracted by attempts to expand Campbell's product line instead of bolstering the equity of its cornerstone soup division.

Alexander was convinced the marketing and advertising teams had diamonds in the rough that just needed to be dusted off and re-presented in ways that carried more modern resonance. One of Campbell's competitive advantages, he has long believed, resides in the nostalgia quotient. "What we found," he says, "is that this group of brands, in terms of the profile it commands, is very responsive to target marketing and advertising."

During Alexander's tenure, Campbell has increased sales and sent a warning shot to aspiring competitors that a giant has reawakened. The dual strategy of media redeployment and a reinvigorated
awareness of the brand is paying off.

Soup Is Hot
Although a number of well-established companies, from Coca-Cola to MasterCard, have successfully gone retro with their own marketing strategies to reach the offspring and grandchildren of baby boomers, harnessing nostalgia alone isn't enough to engage savvy consumers. A can of soup may stoke our eternal human longing for the past, Alexander says, but the product must still pass the coolness test with kids and, of course, continue to nourish the taste buds.

There has been growing recognition that Campbell's line of soups and related beverages, such as V8 and V8 Splash, must be physically and visually accessible when mothers, who, in the U.S., still do most of the shopping, move down the crowded supermarket aisles and are bombarded with sensory overload. In recent years, Campbell has been at the forefront of a breakthrough in point-of-sale presentation that calls attention to its soups and allows harried shoppers to quickly identify what they're looking for and then move on.

The innovation is called the IQ Shelf Maximizers, and it has been copied by other companies. It has been incorporated into the aisle display frameworks at over 15,000 supermarkets across the country. Extensive market research showed that consumers ranked the soup aisle second only to the cough-and-cold medicine aisles as the most confusing and daunting to navigate. The IQ Shelf Maximizers enables shoppers to find their soup of choice in less than 10 seconds. Making the task simpler has served as an inducement for shoppers to buy more Campbell soup, Alexander says.

In addition, Campbell has upped its multimedia advertising with fresh products such as Soup at Hand, which is sold in packaging that is both microwavable and handheld for sipping. A campaign was launched that uses rock music and celebrities to show young people that eating soup possesses its own hipness. Today, the company is an umbrella for more than its signature soups. Other Campbell brands include its healthful V8 drinks, Prego spaghetti sauces, Godiva chocolates, and Pepperidge Farm baked goods.

The Art of Engagement
This past spring, Alexander was part of a panel discussion at the 52nd annual convention of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). The focus was on how companies effectively engage their customers. Joseph T. Plummer, a highly regarded ARF researcher, said a shift is occurring from the old metrics that tied impact to a consumer's ability to recall a product message to advertising that resonates at an emotional level. "With engagement, you're on your way to a relationship instead of just a sales transaction," Plummer told reporter Stuart Elliott of The New York Times. "It is turning the mental model of the industry on its head."

Alexander agrees with Plummer's analysis. As the father of two children, he often thinks about the routines of other families. Part of every advertising campaign must have its foot in the empirical realm of market analysis, but there's another element to how insight is gleaned. Members of Alexander's team are encouraged to observe the world around them and divine new approaches based on intuitive reactions. "In the past, you might have looked at the strategy of a TV campaign from last year and used it to inform what you planned to do next year," he says. "We've tried to become more sophisticated by adapting to changes while they are occurring. We are trying to be smarter.


A Winning Recipe

ONE OF CAMPBELL'S EFFECTIVE engagement tools - a turbocharged vehicle that was created long ago - is the delivery of free recipes for which soups are used as main ingredients to create tasty lunch and dinner dishes. The service, which has moved far beyond being available only on soup cans, has cemented the relationship that women of all ages feel for the brand, says Paul Alexander, the company's vice president of global advertising. Millions of recipes are sent every day to visitors of When the recipient opens the e-mail, they are greeted with Campbell's classic jingle, "M'm! M'm! Good!" "We know that people with busy lives want to make their routines simpler," Alexander says. "The strategy is more about reaching mom where and when she wants to be reached. That might mean her signing up for meal mails, which can be delivered as often as she likes. Or it could mean that she gets an idea for a meal off a recipe that's presented on the back of the can or inside the label. Our hope is that if we provide the right recipe that can be made quickly and easily and her family loves it, then it will strengthen our connection."

"We're also trying to reach people at key points during their day, every day, instead of using a generic strategy. We might use one message in the morning, a different one when they go online and check their e-mail, a different spot at 4:30 in the afternoon, and another one on the radio when they're driving home. At night, we don't stop. There might be a completely different approach when men and women are watching TV together or when they are in different rooms playing video games on the Internet."

It's in the Presentation
Much has been said about overmarketing. When Alexander is asked whether he believes consumers today suffer from short attention spans, he says, "I can't speak from a data standpoint, but our 15- second commercials are every bit as effective as the 30-second spots. That's an important indicator. I can't tell you if people are smarter or they're able to process more information faster. Our philosophy is that if you can't get the message across in 15 seconds or less, you've lost your opportunity."

John W. Faulkner, director of brand communications who works closely with Alexander in promoting products under Campbell's wide umbrella, explains it this way: "Think of Chunky soup. You could say the average Chunky consumer is a man between 25 and 39 who eats it because it fills him up. That's the easy part. What's more difficult is engaging a consumer when he is most receptive to receiving our
message. There are a number of appropriate points of contact. It might be online during a chat about fantasy football, during a TV spot, or in a print ad."

Traditional demographic targets are changing, however. In the past decade, Faulkner notes, more women have moved from being the purchasers of Chunky soups to also being the consumers. "They like Chunky condensed soups because of the simplicity of preparation," he says. "When they become moms, they stay with the brand because it's something they can offer to their kids and feel good about."

At Campbell, a significant emphasis is placed on nurturing what is known as "food love" - a presentation of the product that is so visually gripping it defies verbal explanation and sensually captures the viewer. "One of the things that continues to drive food advertising is the persuasiveness through how it looks," Alexander says. "We spend time getting the best photographers we can. Food love, when communicated through certain points of view, is its own art form. The best in the business are experts at using light and shadow, balancing tight shots with situational narratives - no different, really, than how a great romantic painter approaches a subject."

In the end, Alexander says the key to engaging today's consumers is appreciating the way they live and delivering benefits that are both functionally and emotionally relevant. "When we are successful," he says, "it's because we've reached out to the consumer in a more meaningful way."


"The Secret Ingredient." Todd Wilkinson. The Advertiser, October 2006.