By Annie Gasparro
For Campbell Soup Co., the coronavirus pandemic has accomplished what years of corporate strategy could not: get customers back to stocking their pantries with the company's iconic red-and-white cans of soup.
Packaged cookies, canned tuna and frozen meals have flown off the shelves in the past few months as customers stopped eating out and cooked at home. After losing customers to more health-conscious, artisanal brands, companies like Campbell, Kraft Heinz Co., Nestlé SA and Bumble Bee Foods are getting an unexpected chance to reintroduce themselves to customers and keep them coming back.
Big food makers like Campbell, which spent years trying to reinvent themselves for shoppers' changing tastes, have found that their ubiquity and consistency have turned out to be an advantage against newer brands like Amy's Kitchen that had cut into sales. Now those time-honored brands are stressing the convenience and affordability of their food, while speeding up product development to keep pandemic-era customers coming back.
"What's old is new again," Mark Clouse, Campbell's chief executive, said last month.
Analysts estimate that Campbell's sales in its fiscal third quarter, which the company is expected to report on Wednesday, rose some 16% from a year earlier, according to Consensus Metrix. That would be the company's best quarterly performance by that metric in more than 30 years -- a significant turnabout after a period of turmoil at the company.
Former CEO Denise Morrison championed an expansion into fresh foods intended to address changing tastes. But Campbell said the expansion overcomplicated operations, and an activist investor began pressing for a sale of the company, sowing tensions in the family that controls the 150-year-old food maker.
Ms. Morrison left Campbell in 2018 and the company divested the fresh business. Mr. Clouse, who joined last year, has restructured the company and refocused on soup, a bet that has paid off as customers have flocked back to shelf-stable foods.
Under Mr. Clouse, Campbell has worked to make its soups better tasting, more filling and derived from simpler ingredients. It has added of-the-moment varieties, such as bone broth, and packaging that simplifies heating and eating.
Campbell is trying to make sure its new and returning customers notice the improvements. The company is ramping up social-media marketing, promoting its condensed soups and broths as ingredients for stews and casseroles.
"We're taking all the right actions to try to make that connection," Mr. Clouse said.
It is also promoting the affordability of its soup, given the economic pressures many consumers face.
Dart McAdoo, a 41-year-old videographer in Raleigh, N.C., is among shoppers returning to the soup aisle this spring. He recently used Campbell's creamy cauliflower soup to make shrimp with cauliflower grits. "I grew up eating Campbell's soup," he said. "It's a comfort food."
U.S. retail sales of Campbell's soup skyrocketed 42% in the four weeks ended April 19 from a year earlier, according to data Campbell provided from market-research firm IRI. Sales of its Pepperidge Farm cookies rose 28%, the data showed, and sales of the Prego line of pasta sauce that Campbell owns jumped 49%. Condensed soups, the Chunky line and Prego pasta sauces have each gotten into around five million new households during the pandemic, the company said, citing IRI data.
Robust manufacturing and distribution networks helped Campbell and other packaged-food makers get products to stores more swiftly than some other, smaller rivals could.
Even Campbell struggled at times. Earlier in the pandemic, it couldn't make enough Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers to meet demand and ran out of stock, causing U.S. retail sales to fall 6% in the four weeks ended April 19, according to Campbell and IRI.
During the peak of the pandemic-related grocery buying, the number of items that weren't in stock jumped 160%, according to market-research firm Nielsen.
"Big established brands are able to keep up with demand better," said Joe Ens, a former General Mills Inc. executive who now runs a small brand of protein-rich cereal called HighKey.
Nestlé spent recent years modernizing its Lean Cuisine frozen meals, which hadn't changed much since their introduction in 1981. Nestlé added restaurant-inspired recipes, simplified ingredients and during the pandemic added a new line called Life Cuisine. Now more people are trying the frozen meals for the first time in decades.
"It's not what they remember," said John Carmichael, president of Nestlé's U.S. food division. "We've been working for years for this moment."
Canned tuna has also garnered new buyers, said Bumble Bee's Chief Growth Officer Todd Putman. "This is a moment in time where we can reintroduce a 120-year-old brand," he said.
Write to Annie Gasparro at email@example.com