Lisa Walker, Campbell

Salt is essential for life, but eat too much of it and it may kill you. This is not news. The prevailing theory is that salt forces your body to retain water, putting stress on your circulatory system and resulting in high blood pressure. If your blood pressure stays elevated for too long, your heart works too hard, putting you at greater risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Nonetheless, sodium isn’t perceived to be the public health menace it once was. Its bogeyman status peaked in 1987, when the NPD Group’s survey ranked it the No. 1 most feared food ingredient. Since then, though, fat has swaggered to the top of the enemies list.

But here’s the thing: When it comes to the soup category, it’s still 1987. Fear of high-sodium content is the No. 1 reason why shoppers bypass the soup shelf when they’re at the grocery store. Campbell’s problem was that nothing tastes quite like sodium chloride (except for lithium chloride, which is poisonous). Other would-be salt substitutes like potassium chloride leave an aftertaste. Of course, you could always just go salt-free—and then try to sell the public on the taste of warm tap water.

Around 2002, 2 researchers at Campbell finally found what they felt was an acceptable substitute: Sea salt. But we’re not just talking any sea salt. The company claims it found a supply that tastes like table salt but has 40% less sodium. Execs declined to reveal the location, but say the supply is vast enough to last Campbell for some time.

Still, Campbell’s troubles were not over. A secret ingredient was one thing. Convincing the public of its merits was quite another. Which is why Campbell was also equally lucky to have discovered Lisa Walker 12 years earlier. Charged with marketing the line of soups with the secret ingredient, the petite, unassuming Walker, vp-soup innovation, ended up presiding over one of the biggest hits in Campbell’s recent history. Walker did all this with a campaign that, much like customers’ outdated perceptions, could have come from 1987. The effort was almost entirely composed of old school media like TV, print and coupons.

Campbell’s new line was called, humbly enough, Campbell’s Lower-Sodium Soups, but there was nothing modest about the numbers it generated. For 2007, the first full year the line was available at retail, sales hit $101 million, per IRI, making the soups the biggest new food launch of the year. By 2008, they were bringing in more than $650 million in sales, according to the company.

 Walker’s mission was aided by a lesson she’d learned from a previous project. Back in the 1990s, Campbell’s had worked on V8 Splash, a new line of tropical-fruit drinks that by 1998 was doing $200 million in sales despite the fact that V8, for 50 years, had been a vegetable juice brand. The lesson: Innovation can redefine a brand. “We [also] realized that we could be a beverage company and [still] play outside the soup category,” Walker said.

Using the same innovation-driven approach, Walker, 38, zeroed in on her target consumer: The baby boomer who grew up slurping Campbell’s but stopped because of concerns about sodium.

Walker took a three-pronged approach. A print and TV campaign sought to address the taste issue while a pr campaign established the new line’s health credentials. A couponing effort drove trials.

Unlike its older low-salt line that had been on shelves for year—where they stayed put owing to their bland flavor—Campbell could be confident about this one after taste tests showed that 80% of those who tried them found the new reduced-sodium soups to be as tasty, if not more tasty, than the regular variety. Ads from Young & Rubicam, New York, addressed the lackluster-flavor stigma. The inaugural TV spot was a sly riff on Apple’s famous 1984 ad, showing an antiseptic, vaguely futuristic supper where everything in the room is white and the middle-aged diners robotically spoon invisible soup into their mouths.6 Just then Matt Servitto, an actor best known for playing an FBI agent on The Sopranos ,7 storms in dressed as a chef, bearing bowls of colorful Campbell’s. “What is this?” asks one of the surprised diners. “Soup,” replies the chef. The ad closes with one diner saying to himself, “I remember soup . . .”

While the spots mentioned sea salt as an ingredient, they didn’t go into detail about the type of sea salt. The restraint was intentional, Walker said, as too much information risked creating confusion. That may have been true, but by August 2006, when Campbell was rolling out the line and the advertising, its archenemy in soups, General Mills’ Progresso, was introducing its own line with sea salt, albeit a different type of sea salt. (Campbell had announced its line in February of that year, giving Progresso six months to catch up.)

In the meantime, a pr campaign sought to link the low-sodium line to coronary health. Campbell got a nod from the American Heart Assn., which has let the company use its heart symbol on packaging, and tried to make the red dress as much a symbol of cardiac health as the pink ribbon is for breast cancer. One outgrowth was a deal with NBC’s hit game show, Deal or No Deal, in which the models on the show wore red dresses and mentioned the affiliation.

Completing the marketing three-punch was the couponing effort. Since taste was such a big part of the pitch, getting consumers to try the new soups was essential. But soup isn’t as easy to sample as, say, soda. Soup needs to be heated up, for one thing, which is why couponing made more sense.

By 2008, the sea salt fortified sodium line was considered a hit. Walker admits that to some extent the line cannibalized sales from existing Campbell’s offerings, but about half the buyers were either new or returning after a long absence. The company also continues to bet big on the low sodium sea salt side, planning 22 new varieties (on top of the 32 on the market) this year and a low-sodium revamp of its 36-variety Soup Select line in 2009.

“The low sodium soups have generally had some really positive momentum in the soup category,” said David Morris, senior research analyst with Mintel, Chicago. Morris said Campbell was smart to capitalize on aging baby boomers. “The changing demographics have brought the issue to bear,” he said.

The only possible hitch is if public sentiment turns against low sodium the way it did with low fat and then low carb.8 Though organizations like the AHA recommend cutting sodium in your diet, the link between salt consumption and heart disease hasn’t been proven. “The science is inconclusive,” Walker admitted. Not surprisingly, Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, a Fairfax, Va., group representing those in the salt trade, agrees. Hanneman points out, for instance, that lowering salt in the diets of hypertensive adults lowers blood pressure only half the time, at best, and that “some people’s blood pressures go up.”

Nevertheless, Hanneman couldn’t help but applaud Campbell’s and Walker’s efforts with their new low-sodium line. “There’s a need for a food company to meet the demands of its consumers,” he said. “There’s no health need, but there’s a marketplace need and Campbell offered something consumers want.”

Photo by Frank Versonsky.