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Perspective: Bowl Game

Selling soup as a main-dish food isn't easy—and never was

If you could peer into the cupboards of every U.S. household, you’d find Campbell’s soup in 100 million of them (that’s 80 percent, by the way). Want that picture on a per-can basis? Each year Campbell’s sells 2 billion of them. Nobody—not least at a time when unemployment hovers just below 8 percent—questions the validity of soup for dinner.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, as the two Campbell’s ads here suggest, soup hasn’t always been an easy sell for American stomachs. “These ads are snapshots of their time and the culture, and in fact both ads are similar,” said Buddy Ketchner, president of brand strategy innovation firm Sterling-Rice Group, which has worked with packaged-food brands for 30 years. “Both of them are permission ads, and both have a hurdle to overcome.”

Canned foods date all the way back to 1810 when Napoleon used them to feed his armies. But despite its 140-year culinary track record, by 1950 soup in a can faced a barrier of entry to the American dinner table: Her name was Mom. “There was a lot of skepticism and distrust,” Ketchner said. “At the time, a big part of Mom’s identity was as a provider, making a home-cooked meal from scratch. People felt that convenience foods couldn’t be as good as what you made from scratch. So what you’re witnessing here was a category challenging someone’s identity.”

Funny thing is, the category won—and it won, in part, through the mainstreaming techniques you can see at work in this ad. The soup enjoys entrée presentation, right down to a fork. And, at a time when the ability to afford beef was a meter of domestic security, this ad uses the word “beef” no fewer than 12 times—“tender pieces of beef” and “thick brown beef stock” just for “you beef eaters” out there. Said Ketchner: “Campbell’s created a powerful message that you’re providing a healthy meal that feels similar to a home-cooked one.”

So that’s one hurdle cleared; the second—today’s—began taking shape when all the boys and girls who grew up eating soup in the 1950s turned into the aging baby-boomer cohort, some 79 million Americans who no longer care about the domestic constraints of postwar gender roles but sure as hell would like to avoid heart disease. And so, in this 2013 ad, Campbell’s is granting permission once again. “The permission is, if you’re worried about your heart, you should feel OK about eating this,” noted Ketchner. By keeping its Healthy Request line below 410 mg of sodium per serving, Campbell’s has earned the right to display the American Heart Association logo, whose importance trumps the lovely place setting of yore.

Visually, the 1950 ad is probably more interesting than the current one. But Ketchner observed that both show a brand adapting its core product to the times. “They show how much more complied it is,” he said, “because people expect so much from their food now.” Campbell’s seems to have adapted quite well. Sales of its heart-friendly soup line are up 21 percent over the past five years. Oh yeah, and Mom doesn’t feel guilty about serving soup anymore. She’s at work.

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