Reversing The Growth Trajectory Of A Declining Brand

Allen AdamsonApril 6, 20226 min

As human beings, it’s just natural to want to hang onto things in our comfort zone. Things and ways of doing things that are familiar make us feel safe, especially in a world that is spinning too fast. The faster it spins, the more we want to cling onto something recognizable. Old habits die hard. You know where we’re going with this. If your organization’s culture is stuck, if you find it hard to let go of the past even knowing it’s detrimental to future pursuits, count that as a red flag.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to an old advertising tagline: “Mm! Mm! Good!” We’re dating ourselves, but when we were growing up, you couldn’t say “tomato soup” without thinking about Campbell’s and its red and white cans. It became one of the country’s most iconic brands, and with good reason. In 1897, Dr. John Dorrance, the nephew of the company’s founder, invented a formula for five ready-to-eat condensed soups. The product immediately took off with consumers who wanted meals that were inexpensive and convenient. For years and years, Campbell’s was the soup you turned to in the grocery aisle; tomato soup paired with grilled cheese sandwiches on a snowy day, and cream of mushroom became a staple in millions of American pantries for making your aunt’s famous string bean casserole. Notice the emphasis on calling Campbell’s “the soup.” There is no doubt that Campbell’s brand has incredible awareness in the canned soup category. And therein is a good part of the challenge the company has bumped up against in its efforts to shift ahead. The company has been afraid of leaving its comfort zone and risking any damage to its “Mm! Mm! Good!” name, despite the fact that for the past thirty years the data have indicated that consumer tastes and habits dictate the company should be making some big changes in strategy.

The Truth Is In The Data

In tracking the data, the reasons that the sales of canned soup have been on a steady decline for thirty years are clear to see. Health concerns about too much sodium and increasing consumer preferences for fresh ingredients, no preservatives, and artisanal offerings have been at the core of this decline, along with ongoing changes in demographics and lifestyles. Moms are more likely to be at work than waiting at the back door on a snowy day ready to offer up soup and a sandwich. There’s also the matter of millennials who do not purchase food packaged in cans. For years, the management at Campbell’s knew they had to change, they talked about change, but as the basic math indicated, they couldn’t get out of their own way. Year-over-year sales continued to decline. Management was too locked onto protecting the Campbell’s soup name. They felt that the strongest thing they had was their brand equity and they didn’t want to mess with the recipe. Campbell’s simply didn’t want to change.

As a first attempt at taking a step in a new direction, in 2013, Campbell’s brought in Darren Serrao as senior vice president, chief marketing and commercial officer, who oversaw everything from soup to the company’s V8 unit. (He has since moved on, becoming chief growth officer for ConAgra.) The hope was that as an outsider, he’d help mitigate the cultural risk aversion and inject a new attitude.

As an agent of change, the first thing Serrao did was to get management to take a more honest look at the data. What he got them to see in terms of numbers was that, while dollar sales were sometimes decent, unit sales had been declining for years. The company was using price to reach its dollar sales target and not seeing the whole picture. If you’re at the top of the company, you see the numbers you want to see. You say, ‘great,’ and don’t ask too many questions about how and why you hit the dollar target.

Bold Moves Move People

Another thing Serrao did was to get the company to consider a new demographic target. He convinced management to put a focus on millennials with Campbell’s Go soup, a line of pouched soups with up- dated flavors such as Golden Lentil with Madras Curry and Creamy Style Thai Chicken. He also spearheaded some much-needed marketing innovation, spreading the word among millennials with “Communal Table” events in New York City and Chicago and creating ventures with BuzzFeed, Spotify, and Angry Birds. There was even a Star Wars–centric advertisement that portrayed a gay couple showing off their Darth Vader impressions as they ate Campbell’s soup with their son. This alone was a bold move from a brand that had long been associated with middle-America values for over a hundred years. But all these moves, taken together, were seen as incremental tweaks by Wall Street. Incremental tweaks yield incremental returns. Revenues went up for a short period and then began to plateau and fall. Data, accruing exponentially, were telling Campbell’s that a big shift was required to change the outcome.

More recently, there have been signs that Campbell’s may be taking bigger steps in attempting to move out of its comfort zone. This, paradoxically and happily, while aligning with “authentic,” comfortable, and long-held brand associations. The company has, in fact, looked back in order to begin looking forward. It’s gone back to its roots to find things that are relevant to customers and, yes, different from what other competing food companies can offer. More specifically, in the Campbell Soup Company archives was Dr. John Dorrance’s original beefsteak tomato soup recipe from 1915. In 2016, Campbell’s decided to re-create a limited edition of this soup following the recipe as closely as possible, making sure to use as many fresh, organic, and locally sourced ingredients as possible. (The tomatoes Dorrance used came from New Jersey, so that’s what Campbell’s used.) The packaging for this old-new soup carries a label reflecting both Campbell’s heritage and its recognition of the consumer demand for healthier, “cleaner” foods with fewer artificial ingredients and colorings. In addition, at the beginning of 2016, Campbell’s created three new divisions, including Campbell’s Fresh, Garden Fresh Gourmet, and a refrigerated soup business, all in the effort to cater to health-conscious consumers. The big challenge is to do all this while retaining the company’s image of authenticity.

Step Back To Leap Forward

The launch of the original beefsteak tomato soup is a nod to Campbell’s past, on which the company built its brand name. But it is also a nod to the company’s future, the acknowledgment that people are increasingly turning to food that is more “real.” Whether Campbell’s newest efforts to shift ahead are significant enough to put the company back on top in the food industry remains to be seen. The brand name is well known. The bigger question is whether the company’s culture is strong enough and agile enough to take the calculated risks required to be viewed as relevantly differentiated in the minds of consumers. It’s been a story thirty years in the making. And even though the shifting dynamics in food and foodie culture were relatively slow in coalescing into a major market force, Campbell’s missed many opportunities to act as early as it could have.

Analysis paralysis is another term that reflects a similar phenomenon. It is the state of over-analyzing (or overthinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken—in effect paralyzing the outcome. No one likes to be wrong. When it comes to making a business decision that will affect stakeholders inside and outside the organization, we all want to be right. But delaying action while over-analyzing data is not the best option in today’s marketplace. If your organization is behaving like “a deer in the headlights” (another overused but appropriate term), it’s literally and figuratively not going to allow you to shift ahead of the competition.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel. Excerpted from their book Shift Ahead: How The Best Companies Stay Relevant In A Fast Changing World

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