Headshot of Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer of Campbell’s.
Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer, Meals and Beverages, Campbell Soup Company. — Campbell Soup Company

Three ways Campbell’s Soup Co. gained market share with millennials and Gen Z during the pandemic:

  • As millennials ate 20 billion more meals at home last year, Campbell’s heavily marketed lunch as an eating occasion, appealing to younger consumers’ palates with a new spicy version of its soups, while stoking their interest in healthy fare with an ad campaign featuring actress Mindy Kaling and a Spotify playlist.
  • The soup brand made its products more available via convenience-driven online channels, such as shoppable digital ads with clickable links to retail partners and a partnership with delivery service Instacart.
  • To tap into Gen Z and younger millennials’ interest in sports and gaming, Campbell’s launched partnerships with the NFL and video game EA Madden, bringing the brand to the entertainment platforms where young people populate.

The pandemic forced Campbell Soup Co.— already facing heightened competition in recent years from startup brands and changing consumer tastes—to pivot fast.

The legacy brand, whose soups (and soup cans) are an iconic slice (or spoonful) of Americana, shifted its product mix and marketing messages to court the scores of Americans suddenly eating meals at home and buying groceries online. And as consumers sheltered in place, Campbell’s courted coveted millennial and Gen Z consumers by feeding their consumption habits and tapping into their cultural touchpoints.

Campbell’s entered sports and gaming conversations via partnerships with the NFL and trendy livestream platform Twitch; made its products available for purchase via shoppable digital ads; and launched a spicy version of its Chunky soup line while touting healthy fare via actress Mindy Kaling and more, Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer of Campbell’s meals and beverages, told CO—.

The moves appear to have paid off.

Campbell’s strengthened its business with existing customers but also gained market share among new millennials and Gen Z consumers, Campbell CEO Mark Clouse said during the company’s earnings call in March. Combined, the demographic cohorts reflect the nation’s biggest buying groups.

Now Campbell’s pandemic-fueled gains, buoyed by at-home eating trends, are poised to stick, Jharonne Martis, Director of Consumer Research for market data firm Refinitiv, told CO—.

Consumers’ at-home meals surged by 85 billion last year, and rose 20 billion among millennials, Martis noted, citing national eating trend data from the NPD Group from Campbell’s 8-K report.

What’s more, “Analysts polled by Refinitiv are optimistic on Campbell’s product demand and the fact that supply chain issues eased in the recent quarter,” Martis said.

Here, Lee shares how Campbell’s pandemic-forced strategic pivot led to newfound business among younger consumers, yielding a “once-in-a-generation moment for all of our brands.”

 Product image of tomato paneer curry made with Campbell's tomato soup.
Throughout the pandemic, Campbell’s courted millennial and Gen Z consumers by feeding their consumption habits and tapping into their cultural touchpoints. — Campbell Soup Company

What were the factors that prompted Campbell’s business to pivot when the pandemic took flight?

At the onset of the pandemic, Campbell experienced an unprecedented surge for its products. This was because of stay-at-home orders and restaurant and business closures. Consumers immediately began to stock their pantries and looked for not only dinner solutions, but also lunch occasion ideas. Campbell made the decision to produce as much food as possible, with safety of our employees as our top priority.

How was the decision to ramp up food production implemented to meet consumers’ pandemic-changed needs?

[We decided to] further invest in our ready-to-lunch growth pillar through brands like Campbell’s Chunky and Well Yes! to reinforce easy and nourishing lunch offerings.

[The brand also] prioritized e-commerce to address fundamental changes in shopper behavior through strengthened partnerships with our retail customers and delivery services to offer product availability through click and collect or online grocery pickup.

We also rewired our marketing capabilities for more real-time social listening, consumer insights, creative production, and marketing activation. One example of this effort was we noticed that early in the pandemic, consumers were willing to experiment more, with complicated and longer recipes. As the pandemic progressed and restrictions eased, recipes with less prep time rose to the top in search.

[Read: Tech Powers ‘Food as Medicine’ Trend Amid Consumer Quest for Holistic Nutrition]

How did Campbell’s court younger consumers in its pandemic-shaped food and marketing strategies?

For our Chunky brand, as we faced uncertainty regarding the NFL season, we worked with [football video game] EA Madden and [streaming TV platform] Twitch to enter the brand in the popular gaming world, which received a surge in interest among older Gen Z and younger millennials. We furthered our partnership this past fall by offering in-game experiences, including offering “Fuel Up” points and Chunky-branded gear in Madden’s The Yard.

Given the increase in at-home lunches, we also reinforced that “Lunchtime is your halftime,” featuring Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay.

More recently, we introduced a Spicy Chunky Chicken Noodle SKU that is performing well, and we plan to expand our spicy SKUs this fall, a flavor trend our younger consumers are seeking.

On Well Yes!, we understood that our consumers valued healthy routines and looked to reinforce the brand as a go-to for lunch, like yogurt is to breakfast. In 2020, we partnered with Spotify to create playlists to celebrate positivity and living well. We also launched an advertising campaign with Mindy Kaling to encourage consumers to “Eat Bright.”

Campbell made the decision to produce as much food as possible, with safety of our employees as our top priority.

Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer, Meals and Beverages, Campbell Soup Company.

How did Campbell’s pursue millennials and Gen Z via digital channels?

During the pandemic, shopping and user experience changed as younger consumers looked for convenient and easy ways to purchase product online. Understanding this demand, we invested in tools like MikMak to create shoppable ads with clickable links to retail partners for users to click and collect product. This is something we continue to further invest in, with almost all of our meal and beverage brands signed on.

Another example of how we leveraged our e-commerce retail partners was during our Dinner Insurance program. During Thanksgiving 2020, many consumers opted to host smaller gatherings and may have been tasked with cooking for the first time. We promoted no-fail side dish recipes for first-time cooks to try via Instacart, and if that dish didn’t go according to plan, select consumers could receive a replacement dish same day.

What’s been the return on investment from these pandemic-informed decisions?

For our business, it created a broad retention of the millions of early pandemic new households as well as continued trial of additional new households. For some, it represented a rediscovery of old favorites, but it also introduced our brands to millions of new, and importantly, younger consumers. It was a once-in-a-generation moment for all of our brands, and the work we've done prior to the pandemic better positioned us to meet this moment fully for consumers, customers, and the company.

[Read: CEOs of 3 Food Startups Dish on the Trends Driving Their Success]

What are the potential long-term business opportunities birthed by Campbell’s pandemic pivot?

Our meal and beverages brands are on a continued modernization journey to help put our products in the hearts, carts, and minds of consumers who were introduced or reacquainted with Campbell during the pandemic. [We continue] to invest in innovation and modernization to reinforce consumers’ desire for new options that address their ever-evolving palates, including more at-home lunch occasions and e-commerce [options]. As the world evolves from a pandemic to an endemic, we’ll continue to use our strengthened muscles to quickly identify eating and shopping behaviors and respond with the right innovation and marketing that can help address changing needs.

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Published May 10, 2022