In 1987, the Campbell Soup Company – more widely known as just Campbell’s – was pursuing a new product development strategy.
The economy was looking good (until Black Monday in mid-October, of course) and consumers had experienced four or five years of relative financial stability. The yuppies were in full force, and time had become a precious commodity. Think of the Wall Street movie, and classic phrases like ‘time is money’.
So Campbell’s decided to capitalise on the convenience food market. And as research would have shown that their soups were often enjoyed alongside a sandwich, they thought they had stumbled upon a new idea.
Step forward… the ‘Souper Combo’. Frozen versions of this much-loved food combination that could be microwaved at your convenience.
Campbell’s launched with three (questionable?!) varieties: tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich, chicken noodle soup and a hotdog, and vegetable soup with a cheeseburger.
The company spent millions on generating awareness for the Souper Combo sub-brand, and initial results were promising. According to the Chicago Tribune, the product was selling well. It was being distributed to approximately 30% of the country (the USA) and was estimated to be a $25m business – and Campbell’s was gearing up for a national launch.
However, Campbell’s soon realised that these post-launch sales were just from the initially curious – and the product itself didn’t make much of an impression. Sales declined, and it became clear that consumers had made a one-off purchase and weren’t planning on buying it again.
Why was this? Well, customers found out that despite the claims of increased convenience, it was actually quicker and easier to open a can of soup and make a sandwich themselves than prepare a Souper Combo.
The Combo needed complicated microwave preparation, and it was apparently really quite tricky to get both elements on the table, hot, in less than seven minutes.
After this discovery, the Souper Combo wasn’t long-lived.
What does good look like?
In many ways, I think Campbell’s did a lot of things well. They used market research to find insights into their customers’ buying and usage behaviour. For example, the company realised that convenience was increasingly important to consumers. They knew that soup-and-a-sandwich was a tried and tested combination. And they also foresaw the growing popularity of microwave ovens.
The problems arose through execution. Soup is already a pretty convenient food to prepare, and sandwiches aren’t too far behind them. The whole premise of the product – and therefore the key messages its marketing communications campaign – was convenience, so it really had to offer something special for people to want to buy it. Sadly for Campbell’s, the Souper Combo wasn’t able to live up the hype.
It’s said the product tested well, so it’s difficult to find the lesson here too – because at least they did test it. But it would be interesting to know how the tests were conducted. Were they held in kitchens at Campbell’s facilities, or in the home where the product would be consumed? Was the Souper Combo tried side-by-side against someone heating soup and making a sandwich? When testing for qualities such as convenience, we should compare our product against the next best alternative.