Join our brand new verified AMN Telegram channel and get important news uncensored!

Kitchen logic: How Campbell’s CEO, a former Army pilot, wants to breathe fresh life into soup

Mark Clouse, Campbell's CEO (center) (Campbells Soup Company/Released)

Bone broth as an afternoon snack in a sippable microwave container.

That’s the kind of new product that excites Mark Clouse, who became Campbell Soup Co.’s chief executive in January.

“Imagine that format of a handheld cup, where the base is a bone broth that can deliver 6 to 8 grams of protein,” Clouse said during an interview at the company’s headquarters in Camden. “Now imagine it flavored and infused with tea extract, so it also delivers caffeine, as an afternoon snack.”

Clouse, 51, a food-marketing veteran — with experience at Kraft Foods Inc. and then Mondelez International Inc. before becoming CEO of Pinnacle Foods Inc., sold last year to Conagra Brands Inc. for $8 billion — is laser-focused on reviving the company’s namesake soup business.

Campbell’s soup sales last grew consistently under Douglas R. Conant from 2003 through 2007. They have declined in eight of the last nine years. That record does not discourage Clouse, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a former Army pilot.

“This is where we are the best,” he said. “There is no one that makes soup better than us.”

Clouse succeeded Denise Morrison as Campbell’s CEO in January. Morrison departed last year after an expensive and ill-fated run of “fresher food” acquisitions failed and landed the company in a takeover fight with an activist investor.

The executive, dressed in a dark blue blazer and jeans on a casual Friday, shared his thoughts on today’s consumers, the packaged-food industry, and Campbell’s prospects. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

What 21st-century consumers are looking for in food

I call it kitchen logic. If I see ingredients in a product that exist in my kitchen or my pantry, then I feel pretty good about it. I can pronounce them. I recognize them. I understand what they are. The pivot on health and wellness is all about unwinding processing, simplifying ingredient lines. It’s not about adding 12 things to the product. It’s really about making sure consumers know what’s in it.

How competition has changed for large packaged-food companies

You have a completely different competitive set than you ever had before. In the old days, you knew who was around the corner and whom you were going to slug it out with. I’m at Kraft, and I’m going to be wrestling with General Mills or I’m going to be competing against Conagra or one of the other big companies. Today, the barriers for entry to competition have dropped substantially because you can get online and create a store where you can sell direct to consumers. The whole online experience has created this opportunity for smaller businesses and they’ve done a very nice job of being more focused than the homogeneous big traditional brands.

On what went wrong with Campbell’s acquisitions, such as Bolthouse Farms juices and Garden Fresh Gourmet salsa and dips, that were thought to fit better with today’s consumer trends

Intuitively that makes a lot of sense. If I feel like there’s less relevance to the businesses that we have, let’s go buy relevant businesses. I think the challenge for that has been, the core capabilities and what we’re good at, what we know how to do, and how we think about the management of complexity, are more important to that acquisition strategy than they might have been given credit for. These businesses required very different skill sets, [and] didn’t necessarily fit into where the core competencies of the company were.

On soup business suffering amidst efforts to diversify

If I’m fighting on four or five different fronts at the same time, I’m going to be diffusing my best talent, I’m going to be diffusing my resources, and the odds of me being successful across all those fronts are significantly lower than if I’m picking a couple spaces where I know I’m the best, I can put my best people, my most concentrated level of resources, to succeed. I’ll take the probabilities of that every day of the week.

On what gives him faith that the right approach can revive old brands

I was on Shake `N Bake in 1996. If I would have been on Shake `N Bake in 1956, it would have been an awesome innovative breakthrough. When I was on it, it was essentially bread crumbs in a bag. It had not grown in forever. You could easily look at that and arguably that might be the least relevant form of delivery that you could find. At that particular time, McDonald’s was growing leaps and bounds with chicken nuggets, and we found an increase in household penetration in boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We created a recipe where mom basically cut the chicken breast into squares Shake `N Baked it, and you had much more nutritious chicken nuggets for your kids. I say it not because it’s the most brilliant idea in the world, but it is a way of rethinking the role your brand can play in a more relevant environment.

On a turnaround strategy for Campbell’s Soup

If I didn’t say the word soup to you, if I said vegetables, if I said protein, if I said convenience, if I said value, if I told you those four attributes without saying the word soup, you’d say those are very relevant attributes for consumers today, and not just boomers or older consumers, but also for millennials and younger ones. Now, how do we take the platform of soup and make it relevant? That’s what the turnaround strategy is built upon, which is: One, let’s take the base form, which is center of the bowl, and let’s improve the relevance.

On partnership with Instant Pot, a holiday hit with consumers

We just signed a relationship with Instant Pot, which last year in large retailers was the number-one sold hard good at the holidays. But one of the dilemmas is, I got this thing at home, I get it, but how do I use it simply? Broth and condensed soup is the easiest foundation for cooking. You can do 10-minute chicken, a cream of chicken and rice dish, or you can do a mac ’n cheese using one of our cheese-based products. Phenomenal. Phenomenal. Fits a behavior that’s already growing. That’s totally different than debating whether people are going to eat condensed soup in a bowl.

On how snacks business, which accounts for about half of the company’s revenue, is positioned for growth

We’ve got a snacks business that I would argue is as well-positioned in a growing behavior and trend as anyone else that’s out there. I’m not fighting it out in the big mainstream segments like potato chips. I’m in kettle chips. I’m not in crackers. I’m in kids’ better-for-you crackers. I’m not in tortilla chips. I’m in organic tortilla chips. I’ve got this great opportunity to play in advantaged segments kind of around this bigger, tougher-to-win-in-mainstream places.


© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer