CMO of the Week: Campbell Soup Company's Linda Lee

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One of the first items on Linda Lee’s agenda when she first came to Campbell Soup Company in late 2019 as chief marketing officer, meals and beverages, was perhaps the most daunting: spearheading a redesign for the company’s signature soup can – the first in over 50 years for the 123-year-old brand. 

One of the first items on Linda Lee’s agenda when she first came to Campbell Soup Company in late 2019 as chief marketing officer, meals and beverages, was perhaps the most daunting: spearheading a redesign for the company’s signature soup can – the first in over 50 years for the 123-year-old brand. 

“We knew we needed to modernize this brand to be relevant to this new generation of cooks,” Lee says, noting that many consumers young and old spent more time in the kitchen during these past two years of pandemic life. “With any redesign, it's always a tricky thing for a large, iconic brand. But our brief was: how do we get shoppers to do a double take as they’re walking down the soup aisle and say ‘Let me take a closer look at the brand I know well?’”

The new look was unveiled in July 2021 after a two-year process led by Campbell’s marketing design team in partnership with the agency Turner Duckworth. In a nod to Campbell's iconography from interpretations by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Campbell’s also partnered with multimedia artist Sophia Chang to create an exclusive, one-of-a-kind NFT (dubbed “AmeriCANa”) featuring the new soup label. The NFT is being sold via auction to the highest bidder, and as of early November was selling at a crypto-currency rate equivalent to more than $4.4 million U.S. dollars. All proceeds from the NFT sale will benefit Feeding America to help fight food insecurity. “This was a great way to relate to our brand history and pay homage to our roots but also reflect what's changed. [To answer the question:] How does art show up these days in pop culture?” Lee says. 

Up next? Campbell’s partnered with Universal Music Group for What Sounds Good Tonight?, a four-part music series in which UMG artists across different genres cover classic songs that pair with their favorite Campbell’s recipe to help fuel fans’ cooking playlists. Among the pairings: Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Julia Michaels puts her own stamp on Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” with a side of tomato soup and grilled cheese, while Grammy-nominated country singer Mickey Guyton updates John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith In Me” to accompany her new-mom staple chicken & rice.

The redesign effort coupled with the onset of “soup season” (when temperatures turn cozy from late autumn to early spring) may arrive in time to help offset some of the losses posted in Campbell’s most recent earnings in its 2021 fiscal fourth quarter. Campbell’s saw an 11% decline in net sales during the time period, fueled in part by the surge in demand the company saw in the first months of the pandemic when consumers were “pantry loading” and buying food products in bulk as at-home cooking became the norm during lockdown.

Brand Innovators caught up with Lee from her second day back in Campbell’s offices in Camden, New Jersey to learn more about how Campbell’s ramped up its recipe content to adapt to the sudden demand for its products, the role of innovation in what she estimates is a “70% digital” media budget and the importance of intersectionality in the company’s diversity & inclusion efforts. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Brand Innovators: How did the pandemic first impact Campbell's business in spring 2020, and what are some innovations or new products you've introduced since then to adapt to the new marketplace?

Linda Lee: When we saw that massive spike in pantry loading that occurred at the very beginning of the pandemic, none of us knew how long this would last. And my immediate reaction was “Oh my goodness, how do we make sure we’re giving consumers as many ideas as possible for how to use our products – whether it canned chicken, or their 10th or 20th carton of Swanson broth, or their many, many cans of cream of mushroom soup?” 

We were very fortunate that people bought a ton of stuff, so how could we help give them fresh ideas or things that would give them that sense of comfort? And that twist of being tasty and easy? We knew that while we had a ton of recipes from our decades of activations, we had to break through the traditional recipe search and instead meet consumers where they are. And where they are is their content feed – whether it's your Apple news feed, Yahoo news, everyone’s got a feed. So how do we develop ideas and share those out while meeting consumers where they are? 

So that really was a new muscle for us, we realized that’s something that goes back to comfort and utility and helping our consumers find relevant new ideas, or new things to cook that they know their families are going to love. We realized we could not do this on our own, so we ended up engaging content partners who also had distribution.

What did that process teach you about your owned assets and how prepared you were content-wise for a sudden demand around Campbell’s products? 

I think we had to step up. We had folks on our team creating not just traditional recipes and static photos of food, but also working with video, Instagram stories and using other ways to quickly produce and publish great little video snippets. We did a series where you could cook together with our employees in their home kitchens, which was a reflection that there's a lot of people who all of a sudden became home cooks. So even some of the basics around cooking opened up opportunities around things like opting into our emails. We’ve got ways to reach our consumers who have followed us and opted in with us, so how do we give them some bite-sized content that could be useful to step up their cooking?

How has the tone of your messaging evolved across the different phases of lockdown and re-opening? Did you lean into the comfort food role your products have played during these uncertain times?

In the beginning, there was no question that comfort would be the tone. I had also never done this in my career, so we had to first start by saying “Wait a minute, before we run another ad, let’s take a look and make sure that anything we put out there is going to serve our consumers.” And what we knew they needed was a sense of comfort and usefulness as everyone hunkered down and had to create meal after meal in a way they hadn’t had to before. So comfort and utility was our way to rally around that time.

We’re over a year and a half into the pandemic, and during that time our tone started to reflect what consumers also needed, which was a little sense of discovery — whether it was a little element of entertainment, or if it’s just looking for a little twist on something familiar. After making so many meals, people were in their physical life going back to what's new out there and discovering something new to keep things interesting. That’s probably been the arc in terms of tone, but there’s no question that comfort still plays a role even today — and always.

What role has entertainment played in your marketing strategy this past year?

So firstly, in an ideal world any marketing you do should have value and bring value to the consumer. Certainly, many of our brands know that entertainment is one of the places where we can bring value. For Campbell's red and white or condensed Campbell's, even our ads today provide an element of entertainment because of the way music shows up. [So with our new program with Universal Music Group], it wasn’t like music came from left field, it was something we knew was resonating with consumers and we just found a way to give music in a new way that intersects with just how important audio is as a medium in connecting with consumers.

And it goes beyond that. Campbell’s Chunky Soup is something that historically has a ton of equity with the NFL and football, but during the pandemic we actually expanded Chunky to try to reach younger consumers and reflect how people are spending their time. In 2020, when the football season was paused for in-person attendees and fans, we saw there was a lot of gaming happening, and we entered into an EA Sports partnership with Madden 21. And that to me started that realm of not just advertising on TV with Chunky ads, but being part of an entertainment platform that’s huge and continues to grow and doing it in a way that's true to Chunky. 

A third example is TikTok. If you think about social media, the Facebooks and Instagrams today have become almost paid vehicles, so TikTok is the best example of truly social, organic, user-generated content. It’s been a platform that during the pandemic we really have gotten into to see its role in people's lives as entertainment, and we think it works well not only from a food perspective, but for a brand like SpaghettiOs, which is very playful and has a musical tone to it.  

How has your overall media mix evolved this past year – what channels are you spending more on, and why?

A surprise of mine when I joined here is that the modernization of our media channels or digitization of our media mix, this team already started on that. We’re 70% digital, which is quite high for a large brand and a large established company. Within that, the places that we continue to increase are very reflective of new consumer behaviors. That includes investing more into streaming. I don’t know about you, but I've never streamed as much content as I have the last 20 months. 

The next one, which is where Chunky and EA Sports falls into, is what I call social-centric custom partnerships. That part we’ve grown, and the last piece is around ecommerce, which has just skyrocketed and taken a massive step forward. We’ve shifted or added dollars to make sure that we’re showing up on that digital shelf.

What are some diversity, equity & inclusion commitments Campbell's has made at a corporate level that you're helping to accelerate through your marketing?

It’s always been a pillar for us, but it’s elevated since 2020, no question. The first place is corporately during this time we created a new role of chief culture officer to make sure at a senior level we’ve got a strategy that’s focused and clear and elevated. And from a marketing perspective, it was really about three key pillars. The first was around self-development. I’m a big believer that it starts with our people and self-awareness. How do we learn about ourselves and be able to acknowledge and work from there? The second was around recruiting. How do we make sure that in our recruiting practices that our pipelines of new talent are built in systematically? With our intern program, for example, we established some specific criteria to look at where we were sourcing our interns and made sure this was reflected in our practices. 

And the third was communications. The first two I felt like we could start that journey, that’s within our control, let's make sure we're tackling ourselves first before looking out. But with communications, for me on this one we’re still in the education stage. When I look back 15 years ago, multicultural marketing was a thing where you had a separate budget around it and you hired separate agencies. And as an industry we went through a period where it helped educate all of us to think about casting, having that additional layer of awareness as we developed our communications to a point where that no longer exists. But what happened in 2020, for us it was a question of what should we be thinking about moving forward? Because that’s old school, so let's educate ourselves by working with different thought leaders to get different perspectives to educate us so we can understand what this means moving forward for us. 

We had a panel around the term of intersectionality, and that really resonated for me with this idea that we come from different places and we have to honor and understand that. As humans and the business we’re in, which is food, what are those intersectionalities, those shared values that we can actually celebrate and play a role in? Our broader corporate purpose is around connecting people through foods they love, and that's just the truth around what food does for people.

Now we’re looking at how to think about inclusion and diversity in the work we do and the brands in our portfolio. We have to be authentic to our roots and honor what our consumers expect when they pick up a can of Chunky or a jar of Prego, we gotta respect that. But how do we move the agenda ahead? Especially when you put Gen Z at the center – their openness, their fluidity of culture and intercultural knowledge is a great starting point.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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