Campbell Soup Seeks Big Ideas From Small Groups

CEO pushes soup giant to move faster, 'think outside the can'

Campbell Soup Co. certainly benefits from its large scale, but CEO Denise Morrison sees nimbleness as key to driving innovation and growth in the future.

Accordingly, Morrison encourages company staffers to break down into smaller cross-functional groups to develop new product ideas. Campbell also has rebuilt its Camden, N.J., headquarters to create open spaces for these "breakthrough teams" to meet.

Speaking at the 4As Transformation conference in New Orleans, Morrison described the new approach as "disciplined creativity." She said it was vital to getting the soup giant to move faster in an ever-changing world.

"There's such a gravitational pull when you're a 140-year-old company to do things that you were comfortable with, that made you successful in the past," said Morrison, who answered questions from Andrew Robertson, CEO of Campbell roster shop BBDO. "So, we came out with this mantra when I became CEO [in 2011] of focusing forward—focusing outward to consumers and ahead to create our future. So, we had to think outside the can."

Referring to her spotted outfit, she added, "Look, I'm dressed like a cheetah. How many CEOs wear a cheetah jacket? But the cheetah is the speediest animal on the planet. It goes from zero to 62 in three seconds. Campbells had to be faster at innovation, and we had to accelerate our innovation to about 15 percent of sales."

To get inspiration for new ideas, Campbell often looks outside the company. The idea of working in smaller groups, for example, came from a consulting company called Ideo. Morrison also cited Apple founder Steve Jobs and his willingness to take risks and challenge the status quo. More fundamentally, sometimes it's just a matter of really listening to consumers, according to Morrison.

"For example, our team decided that we wanted to really understand Millennials and build food and beverages for the next generations," Morrison said. "So, they went out and they lived and they shopped with Millennials and they ate with them and they cooked with them. They went to pop-up bars; I couldn't get them to come back to work. It was really something. But listening to the consumer and getting inspired by what the consumer needs before they know they want it is a big spur for innovation."