Some Soup Is Not Good Food

If you’re like most Americans, you probably spend relatively little time per day cooking. There are a lot of people who think this development marks a great moment of human progress: people can spend less time cooking and more time on other “more important” activities, like working longer hours or scrolling through a few more status updates on Facebook. Sounds like an awesomely beneficial trade-off, right?

But there are signs that, at least among younger consumers, the winds are changing: more of us Millennials are moving away (albeit quite slowly) from the Quik-E-Mart style of feeding ourselves and towards something a little more intensive and thus healthful. This is a welcome development. But it has made a few folks nervous: the corporations who have built their monoliths around the kind of gee-whiz push-button cooking model of the mid-20th century. What is a multinational canned soup conglomerate to do when the customer base starts gravitating towards the fresh vegetables? Well:

If shoppers are often steering clear of the center aisles, Campbell reasons it needs to meet them in the parts of the store that they visit. That is why two of the new soups, Garden Fresh Gourmet and Souplicity, are refrigerated products that come in plastic containers, not cans, that can be sold on the cold shelves that line a supermarket’s perimeter.

Souplicity is the highest-end line of the three, a single-serving organic product that costs $5.99 for a 17.6-ounce container and comes in such flavors as “Carrot Curry Ginger” and “Broccoli Parmesan Lemon.” This is designed for a health-conscious customer — picture, perhaps, a yoga devotee who already springs for items such as cold-pressed juices. Campbell made sure to market-test this one in Southern California, a hub of healthful eating.

“We saw an opportunity there for a very culinary experience, very clean experience,” said Suzanne Ginestro, chief marketing officer and general manager of innovation at C-Fresh, the division of Campbell Soup that makes fresh food…

There are no major media campaigns now for Souplicity and Garden Fresh Gourmet. And the products so far are sold in just a small set of grocery stores, where Campbell can see how shoppers react to them and then slowly build into more stores.

“It’s much more organic, from the ground up. And that helps you deliver on this smaller, authentic, real [principle],” Ginestro said. “Let’s be completely transparent and let this business grow organically.”

I have nothing against Campbell at all, but I will say it kind of delights me to see a century-old food processing dinosaur cluelessly scramble after the coveted cold-pressed-juice-drinking “yoga devotee” demographic. The free market is astonishing not just for the way it brings us an endless array of products but also for the way it forces Baby Boomers in Camden, New Jersey to kowtow to cultural forces they probably know nor care nothing about.

Just the same, this is, all things considered, fairly pathetic. Corporate culture—the soulless, dollar-chasing, focus-group-tested, utterly safe and predictable style of modern corporation adpseak—is so transparently fake enough to be almost uncomfortable. “A very culinary experience;” “authentic, real;” “much more organic;” “C-Fresh:” there is such a desperate attempt here to appear genuine and unaffected, to the point that you have to wonder who is giving these people their cues. Where does this dead-eyed and so obviously coached approach to human interaction come from? Who started this, and why is it perpetuated?

Apart from the cringeworthy jargon, this whole sales gabmit feels like the awkward and embarrassing result of a company’s attempting to stray outside of its natural métier in favor of something that just doesn’t fit. Historically—and perhaps appropriately, given the dynamics of the market—Campbell wasn’t concerned with “delivering” on a “smaller, authentic, real principle.” They were concerned with churning out millions of gallons of soup, roiling rivers of chicken noodle and tomato and pepper pot, slathering the American continent in cream of mushroom and consommé from sea to shining sea. You can almost picture the glory days of the Campbell empire: cigar-chomping executives slapping tiny little push-pin Campbell soup cans onto a map of the United States: “We’re in another grocery chain in the Midwest, boys!” Back then Campbell knew its mission and it knew the parameters of that mission: manufacture and sell the American people a whole bunch of damn cans of pre-made-effing-soup. Let the wheels of industry turn. Mmm mmm good!

To be sure, the soup was not all that good, and not all that good for you—and it is unsurprising (and good) that, in this day and age, people are moving away from that old style of wartime ration soup cans in favor of healthier and more flavorful options, especially those fresher, unprocessed options that impose a measure of self-sufficiency upon the American consumer.

But that’s the point: Campbell had the opportunity to go out with some dignity, accepting the changing marketplace and the changing desires of the American public with a measure of self-respect. Instead, we have this ignominious and humiliating attempt to “meet customers in the parts of the store that they visit,” fabricating pretentious little plastic pods of soup that are meant to be “authentic” and “culinary.”

In all likelihood, this attempt will not go very well at all, and Campbell will suffer for it. But they will have suffered doubly: by losing a lot of money on an inadvisable market gamble, and by selling out the ethos of their great American company in a misguided attempt to conform themselves to a changing world. “Let’s be completely transparent,” they say. Don’t worry, Campbell: you already are.

4 comments

  1. Joy

    Well-written and thought-provoking (hey, that’s two hyphenated words–right there you know this is a solid review). Funny, I haven’t seen those Campbell ones but I did buy two cans of a slightly-upscale (3 hyphens!) versions, Campbell’s YES soups, in carrot bisque and some tomato/wild rice deal. Both had marginally more flavor but still lacked any freshness and had some questionable ingredients. I would prefer to see an honest company selling genuine bone broths from proper meats. Because once you’ve got that, soup is a lead-pipe (4!) cinch.

  2. John Schmied

    So I just read your article on fake news stories that the media has run with eager anticipation. After reading the article I was wondering if that’s all you have to base your thesis on that our media is running amok with facts? I say this regretfully in that I was looking for something that really was worth spinning such a large part of
    the Federalist banner page on. Mistakes are made in America, especially in the intense 24 hour news cycle, so what? On the other hand, you might want to try your hand on leading politicians making repeated false official statements. This is an impeachable offense and is being done constantly by key officials in our government and is well worth your time to write, as an unbiased reporter, and would be truly interesting for your readers. What do you think? Fluff piece, or some real down to earth investigative reporting?

    • Phil Brown

      This is more of a “+1” than a reply, in that I found myself here by following the same trail of bread crumbs as Mr. Schmied and also had a similar reaction of bemused befuddlement. Seriously, is that all you’ve got (i.e., the mainstream media makes mistakes that it then corrects)? While a precise definition for “fake news” is as elusive as one for “pornography,” you provide a decent mechanism yourself for separating real from fake by the presence of retractions/corrections. At least the MSM makes the attempt, whereas right-wing outlets tend to double down on their own bogus claims (Bowling Green massacre, anyone?). While I rather suspect you’re thrilled with the spike in traffic generated by the Trump-tweet, it’s disheartening as a citizen to learn that the POTUS will use your brand of thinly-sourced and weakly-reasoned material as a primary reference.