- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

When Campbell Soup Co. began selling its condensed soups in their red and white cans, it couldn't have been easier just add water and heat. But this convenience food has been surpassed by even more convenient foods, and now the company is trying to convince the public that its products, including stalwarts such as alphabet soup, are really M'm! M'm! Better!
Campbell's isn't relying on advertising alone. It's also changing the soups to stop consumers from defecting to other foods.
The alphabet soup, for example, now has 40 percent more letters, and the vegetable chunks are more crispy.
Doug Conant, who became the company's chief executive nearly two years ago, said the company does not expect to revolutionize dinner tables.
"Our goal is to stabilize our condensed soup business," he said.
Sales of the condensed soups have been falling about 1 percent to 2 percent a year, canceling out some of the growth in other businesses for the company, which also sells Pepperidge Farm cookies and crackers, Pace picante sauce and Godiva chocolates, among other brands.
Whether the changes are enough to stabilize sales could determine the fate of the condensed soup market, some analysts say.
Andrew Lazer, an analyst for Lehman Brothers, said that if the soup upgrades flop, the company will have even more soul-searching to do.
"Does this management team throw in the towel on condensed?" Mr. Lazar asked.
Campbell's officials say condensed soup, with sales of about 1 billion cans a year in the United States, is here to stay, no matter what. Three soups tomato, chicken noodle and cream of mushroom are among the 15 best-selling products in the nation's supermarkets, company officials said.
Campbell's has tinkered with its soups before adding more chicken to the chicken noodle, for example but the company has not had such a major soup overhaul. It is about midway through its three-year plan to improve the soups.
Ten vegetable soups, including the minestrone, the vegetable soup with alphabet-shaped noodles and the Southwest-style chicken vegetable, already have been revamped. The company plans to have 13 more soups, including chicken noodle, reconstituted by this time next year using the same process.
In the past, Campbell's soups were made roughly the same way people at home would make soup from scratch: in one big pot.
The company is now using a new cooking technique, called "cold-blending," which allows different ingredients to be added at different points in the process and some ingredients to be cooked less. The result is a soup with a clearer broth and crisper ingredients.
Walter Gordon, 72, of Cinnaminson, tried some of the new vegetable beef soup for lunch recently and said he liked it because it was meatier than the old version.
"If they say that they're making similar changes in the others, I'd be inclined to try them," said Mr. Gordon, the retired provost of Rutgers University's Camden campus.
A group of financial analysts also tried the upgraded soups a few months ago. Mr. Lazar said he was impressed, but added: "It was still condensed soup."
The changes are expensive. The company won't specify the cost of the new upgrade equipment, but it spent about $300 million to overhaul the technology in all its plants during the fiscal year that ended July 31.
Analysts say store brands have improved their quality over the years and cut into Campbell's business, particularly in the condensed market. But the company thinks the changes will put it in a better position.
"It's going to be very much harder for our competitors to follow," said R. David C. Macnair, Campbell's chief research officer.
Analyst Mitch Pinhero, who follows Campbell's for Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, said that beyond changing the soups, "there's not a whole lot more they can do unless they cut prices."
Campbell's also needs to make the soups easier to find.
Shoppers often complain about the difficulty of finding their choice from the sea of varieties in red and white cans.
The company is aware of the problem and has tried to fix it. Business director Michael J. Ferry said about two-thirds of the nation's supermarket chains have agreed to at least some of the company's proposed new soup organization principles, which call for grouping soups by brand and flavor.
If the changed taste and organization of the condensed soups doesn't draw customers, Campbell's has one more trick to attract buyers interested in convenience: putting on easy-open tops that will make can-openers unnecessary. It's already in place on the company's ready-to-serve varieties.

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