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How Campbell’s Tomato Soup Became a Legend in a Can

Warhol painted it, and 2 billion of us still eat it

Next time you open a can of Campbell’s—and, each year, over 2 billion of us do—say “Bon appétit” (yes, instead of “Mmm mmm good,” which is trademarked). After all, it was a Frenchman—the Paris-born Louis Charles DeLisle—who perfected the secret recipe for condensed tomato soup in 1902. Since then, Campbell’s tomato has become an indispensable fixture in American kitchens. More than a century since its introduction, and despite a gradual decline in soup consumption, Campbell’s is still among the top 10 grocery items that Americans buy.

Why? As it turns out, this convenience food of yesteryear still fits pretty well into contemporary life. It’s cheap, fat free, and you can keep it on the shelf for a year (the intrepid say longer) and still eat it. It also hasn’t hurt that, ever since opening its in-house test kitchen in 1940, Campbell’s has kept up the marketing practice of suggesting various dishes that can be made with tomato soup once you’re tired of eating just tomato soup. A 1949 ad featured a recipe for a ham loaf blended with tomato soup and sour cream. Today, if you head over to the Campbell’s Kitchen Web page, you’ll find a recipe for Tomato Soup Spice Cupcakes.

Not quite to your taste? It doesn’t matter. As Martyn Tipping, partner in brand consultancy TippingGardner, explains, Campbell’s Tomato has built up such credibility—in the kitchen and the culture—it endures based on reputation alone. “Warhol may have created the most timeless, well-known visualization of the Campbell’s soup can, but Campbell’s was already an icon long before Warhol put paint to canvas,” Tipping said. “Campbell’s soup transports us back to our childhood and reminds us of a time when a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich was the height of fine dining. Mom showed us she loved us by serving Campbell’s soup, and we continue the tradition by serving Campbell’s to our children today—with organic sourdough croutons, of course.”

Now, a word about that famous red and white label. Campbell’s kept it mostly unchanged from 1898 until a major redesign in 1999. In 2010, Campbell’s hired no fewer than three neuromarketing firms to test new label designs using techniques like micro facial expression analysis.

Aware the younger consumers don’t eat soup as often as their parents, the company has also introduced Campbell’s Go, which is soup in a bag. A bag? Well, purists will always see red, at least in the form of that famous, 10.5-ounce can. The standard. The one mom opened up, and the one that you—starving student, working mom, single guy who can’t cook—still do.

1. How’s it managed to stick around this long?
Way before the age of convenience foods, Campbell’s was a pioneer of showing homemakers that its Tomato Soup was a time-saver that could be used in many dishes. Plus, it’s cheap.

2. Why did Andy Warhol paint a can of Tomato Soup?
“Because I used to drink it,” the artist said. “I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years.” Warhol was famous for turning the prosaic into the profound, and one day in 1962, he silk-screened a can of Tomato Soup. When Christie’s last sold the 16-by-20-inch canvas in 2010, it fetched $9 million.

3. Where do all those tomatoes come from, anyway?
In the old days, Campbell’s trucked tomatoes grown by South Jersey farmers right up to its Camden, N.J., plant to put into the soup, but ended the practice in 1979. These days, industrial growers in California send in their harvests.

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