Soup Wars Stir Debate

NEW YORK The ongoing war between Campbell and Progresso over MSG in soups has prompted experts to examine the efficacy of aggressive ads like the one running in today’s New York Times, in which Campbell strikes back against its rival. Experts say that while such ads bring important issues to light, they also cause consumer confusion and can kill the category as a whole.

Over the past weeks, Campbell and Progresso have been involved in a soup fight centered on aggressive ads. In the latest installment this week, Campbell, the maker of Chunky and Select Harvest soups, has released an ad that reads: “Campbell’s proudly offers 124 soups with NO MSG.” The ad is a response to a General Mills ad that ran last week attacking Campbell for using MSG in 95 of its soups. Campbell fired the first shot at Progresso, claiming that its soups use MSG, a food ingredient known as monosodium glutamate.

The new ad breaks in The New York Times today and several regional papers, such as the Chicago Tribune. It points out that while “two-thirds of Progresso soups contain MSG, the majority of [Campbell’s] soups do not,” including Campbell’s condensed, Healthy Request and Select Harvest soups, which came out last month.

Campbell said the response was not meant to add fuel to the fire, but to address a topic that’s at the top of mind for many consumers. “The back of the label is the new front of the label,” said Campbell representative Anthony Sanzio. “Consumers are turning the cans around to see what’s in soups.”

But experts say the attack tactic could hurt the soup brands and put the entire category at risk.

“If I’m a consumer, all of a sudden, I might say, ‘Canned soup might be convenient, but I know it’s not as wholesome as soup I might buy at a Whole Foods or gourmet shop,'” said Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University, New York.

Jim Wisner, CEO of the Wisner Marketing Group in Libertyville, Ill., said private labels tend to get a boost when big brands engage in a category battle. This doesn’t mean, however, that aggressive ads don’t have some effect on the brands involved in the fight. For instance, Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign gained such traction that Microsoft was compelled to launch a similar campaign called “I’m a PC.”

“Apple has been able to get away with it because of their use of humor to tone down the attacks, so they seem lighthearted, rather than full frontal,” said Julia Beardwood, a principal at Beardwood & Co., New York.

In the beer category, a prominent example of aggressive marketing is the “light” beer wars of 2005 between Budweiser and Miller. Both rivals fueled the “low-carb” debate, but Anheuser-Busch ultimately won. Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, Roswell, Ga., said: “It didn’t work because Miller was a weaker brand . . . [Plus], the carb difference was really small. Do beer drinkers really care all that much about carbs?”

So why aren’t there more instances of marketers making direct assaults on competitors?

The attacker has to have a “clean house,” according to Ries. “The pot can’t be calling the kettle black if it has the same problem itself,” she said. (In the case of Campbell and Progresso, they chose to focus on MSG, even though both brands have soups that use the ingredient.)

“If you go out and make a claim like that, that’s something that’s got some teeth to it,” Wisner said, alluding to the soup companies’ MSG claim.

It’s not clear how long the soup war will play out and if today’s Campbell ad may prompt yet another response from Progresso. General Mills’ rep Tom Forsythe would not comment of future ads, but said the company looks forwards to going back to “messaging on taste and health. That is really where Progresso differentiates itself from Campbell.”

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