Processors are tweaking, enhancing or overhauling their formulas to make their products more desirable and more relevant to a variety of consumers.

Soup, as one Campbell Soup slogan observed, is good food. After all, packaged soups are flavorful, nutritious, versatile, easy to prepare and economical.

However, that description is shared among many frozen entrées, carry-out foodservice offerings, and other meal and snack options, so today’s processors are tweaking, enhancing or overhauling their formulas to make their products more desirable and more relevant to a variety of consumers. The soup aisle is witnessing:

  • A growing array of flavors and textures.
  • More products addressing health concerns.
  • Advanced packaging and heating technologies for portability and quicker preparation.
  • A greater range of price points.
  • New segments that are not, in fact, found in the soup aisle at all, but in fresh and refrigerated sections of the store.

    Indeed, innovation is the vital force propelling the market, and sales figures indicate as much. (Sales are tracked through food/drug/mass [FDM] channels, excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc. [IRI].) During the 2002-2007 period, year-to-year growth was mostly modest. However, 2004 saw sales spike as a direct result of the previous year’s product launches, most notably microwaveable, ready-to-serve soup in portable containers, as well as new flavors. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD), new soup releases peaked in 2004 at 337, 45% above the 2002 number and 60% more than in 2005.

    The segments showing the greatest increases over the review period are refrigerated/fresh soup and ready-to-serve broth. The novelty of the refrigerated segment, combined with freshness, convenience and unique flavors, are all generating consumer interest. Purveyors of ready-to-serve broth, meanwhile, have been working to differentiate their offerings in a commoditized segment with low-sodium and organic offerings, aseptic and resealable cartons, and new varieties, such as Kitchen Basics’ ham, pork and clam stocks.

    Similarly, sales of private label soups jumped by nearly half between 2002-2007, thanks to a spate of products that reach beyond mere imitation of national brands.

  • Shaking the Salt

    Food processors have renewed their focus on low-sodium offerings. Certainly, these efforts intend to stave off potential regulation, such as the American Medical Association’s proposal to strip salt of its “generally recognized as safe” status and require warning labels about hypertension.

    However, the driving impetus for the development of reduced-sodium soups is consumer desire for these products. Mintel's research surveyed consumers who buy soup. Of these, 70% of those with health in mind opted for low-sodium varieties when making their soup purchases.

    Removing salt from a processed food wreaks havoc with its flavor profile, texture and body, and salt substitutes have proven far from perfect. The end product often has a metallic aftertaste or practically no taste at all. Now, Campbell Soup has developed a technology based on all-natural sea salt with distinctive evaporation and crystallization properties. The technique also employs proprietary flavor enhancers and blending processes to reduce sodium, without sacrificing taste.

    Since developing its high-tech recipe, Campbell has been introducing new and reformulated products at a brisk clip. In 2006, 32 soups with 25% or 45% less sodium were introduced, followed by 14 in 2007. In 2008, Campbell announced Campbell’s Select would be restaged as Campbell’s Select Harvest, with sodium reduced to the 480mg per serving required for a product to call itself “heart healthy.” A dozen condensed kids’ soups are also being reformulated to meet the FDA’s standards for the healthy designation. As of fall 2008, Campbell will have 85 condensed, ready-to-serve and microwavable low- or reduced-sodium varieties of soup.

    IRI pronounced Campbell’s reduced-sodium soup the most successful new brand of 2007, awarding it the top spot on its New Product Pacesetters list. According to IRI, fewer than 5% of new brands achieve sales of $50 million at FDM in their first year; the Campbell’s product registered more than twice that.

    Extreme Flavor

    Mintel’s consumer research finds flavor is the most important factor influencing soup purchase—more important than price, healthiness or brand. Furthermore, more than half of soup-eating respondents say they “like to try new flavors of soup.” (It should be mentioned that consumers are not abandoning the classics. For three quarters of soup eaters, “with chicken” and “with noodles” are favorite varieties.)

    Unusual flavors and different textures have been among the areas of experimentation of late with canned, frozen, aseptic and refrigerated products alike. Pacific Natural Foods’ recent “creamy” additions include Cashew Carrot Ginger and Curried Red Lentil. In a heartier vein, Tabatchnick has begun offering a frozen Rock Island Seafood Chowder, while Campbell’s new Chunky Fully Loaded range is “packed, crammed and jammed with extreme amounts of meat.”

    Refrigerated, fresh soups appeal to premium food seekers who want sophisticated flavors. Among the marketers promising restaurant-quality, chef-inspired fare are Harry’s Fresh Foods, offering the likes of Organic Tomato Gorgonzola with Basil soup and Egg Flower soup, as well as Boston Market’s Shrimp Bisque with Sherry.

    Private Label in Premium Territory

    Price trumps brand as the primary or secondary consideration, when shoppers mull the options in the soup aisle. Mintel’s research found one explanation for the lack of brand loyalty: 56% of consumers enjoy sampling new flavors, best accomplished by shopping among several brands.

    The growth in private labels suggests consumers either see parity between major labels and store brands; or they do not believe the differences that do exist are worth higher prices; or both. Grocers are endeavoring to further narrow the perceived gap between the two by integrating store brands with leading brands on the shelf (to demonstrate price differences and the breadth of offering in private label), in addition to adding store-branded soups to prepared foods and refrigerated sections.

    Retailers are expanding their offerings beyond the standard chicken noodle/vegetable/tomato fare and even presenting foods in innovative packaging. Wal-Mart offers ready-to-serve Grilled Chicken and Sausage Gumbo Soup under its Great Value brand; Trader Joe’s has Roasted Corn Tortilla Chowder, Butternut Apple Soup and Portuguese Bean & Sausage Soup; and Target sells its own Archer Farms Organics Homestyle Carrot Ginger Soup, which also contains orange juice. Wegmans Food Markets’ microwaveable Fresh Hot Kettle Soups, which come in Spicy Thai, Tomato Basil Orzo and Escarole & Bean, are wrapped in heat-resistant “java-jackets” to protect the user’s hands when removing the hot soup from the oven.

    To combat the success of private labels, some brands, such as Pacific Foods and Small Planet’s Muir Glen, successfully use their authentic, organic and all-natural heritage to convince consumers to pay a little extra. Other national brands are positioning their soups as premium and conveying marketing messages they believe will be meaningful (and worth more) to consumers.

    The Progresso brand has long been positioned as offering rich flavor and quality ingredients—upscale yet mainstream. In 2007, Real Simple magazine deemed Progresso the best store-bought chicken noodle soup, citing its homemade appearance and “chunks of real (not processed) white meat and a remarkably flavorful, lightly salted broth.”

    Other major soup players are implementing descriptions with a homemade stance. (As illustrated in the chart “In the Soup,” nearly half of soup eaters agree with the statement: “In general, packaged soup does not taste as good as homemade.”) To evoke images of an old-fashioned kitchen, for instance, Campbell’s Stock Pot soup says on the label, “Kettle Made Daily.” Harry’s soups are “Kettle Cooked Small Batches.” In case that tactic does not grab the consumer, the soups are also prepared by “professionally trained chefs.”

    Campbell recently acquired its own celebrity chef with its July 2008 purchase of the Wolfgang Puck soup business. The company cites gourmet recipes, high-quality premium positioning and presence in the organic and natural sector of the market as factors in the brand’s appeal as an acquisition.

    Soup Facilitates Veggie Compliance

    The U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 2.5 cups of vegetables per day, on average, choosing from all five vegetable sub-groups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables and “other” vegetables) several times a week.

    Many consumers use vegetable-based soups to fulfill their daily quotas. Some 31% of soup eaters surveyed regard health as a factor in their purchase decisions. Of these respondents, 50% say “a serving of vegetables” is important in a soup selection.

     Fully aware of the focus on vegetables today, some marketers of vegetable-rich soup products tout a “full serving of vegetables” on the label—Progresso Traditional Split Pea and Ham and Campbell’s newly announced range of V8 soups are two examples.

    Soup for Slimming

    More than half of soup eaters agree with the statement, “Soup is very filling,” and about half of health-conscious soup buyers look for low-calorie products. Many soups are naturally low in fat and calories, but Progresso is claiming the weight-loss crowd for its very own.

    In August 2007, the company launched a “light” line of soups with 50% fewer calories than its conventional ready-to-serve counterparts. Progresso Light, said to be the only nationally branded, light soup in the category, contains 60 calories and 4g of fiber per serving and delivers a full serving of vegetables. Premium vegetables, hearty staples like barley, corn, pasta, beans and wild rice, along with “Progresso culinary seasonings,” serve to make them so flavorful and satisfying, the company says.

    Progresso Light also scored a marketing coup by becoming the first CPG in any grocery category to bear the Weight Watchers endorsement with a “points value” of zero. This offers a meaningful, and rare, point of differentiation in a category that enjoys so little brand loyalty.

    Future Trends and Opportunities

    The good news is that many consumers have a few cans or packages of soup stowed in the kitchen cupboard at this very moment. Just over eight in 10 consumers surveyed by Mintel personally use canned or other wet soups, and 45% personally use dry soup.

    The bad news, though, is that many consumers have a few cans or packages of soup stowed in the kitchen cupboard at this very moment—languishing. Of soup-eating respondents, 45% say soup frequently sits in the household larder for weeks before it is eaten.

    To get soup out of the cupboard and replenished more frequently, consider:

    Soup for breakfast. One-quarter of soup eaters surveyed by Mintel are open to the idea of soup for breakfast (an Asian culinary tradition). For the American palate, such a product might be fruit-based and chilled, like a smoothie, or it could be savory, with ingredients like breakfast sausage. It could even be packaged with a breakfast biscuit.

    Getting adults to eat their vegetables. As noted, the government’s healthy eating guidelines recommend selecting from five sub-groups of vegetables several times a week. Many otherwise health-conscious consumers may be disinclined to step up their consumption of, say, bok choy, kale or watercress (dark green vegetables). Processors could incorporate nutrition-packed vegetables into tasty soups, much as parents are advised to “sneak” vegetables into their kids’ meals by rendering them unrecognizable.

    It is an ideal vehicle in many ways for the delivery of functional benefits. Tabatchnick has enriched some of its soups with omega-3 fatty acids, citing benefits to the cardiovascular, immune and central nervous systems. What about soups that deliver more immediate benefits? For instance:

  • Fortified with nutrients depleted from the body during stress.
  • Made with ingredients to stimulate detoxification or fat burning.
  • Chicken soup with Echinacea and zinc for extra protection during cold and flu season.

    By continuing to innovate and address shifts in consumer priorities, soup makers can achieve the ideal expressed by Campbell Soup CEO Douglas R. Conant: “making soup the ultimate healthy simple meal.”

    This article contains information from the Mintel report “Soup, U.S., September 2007.” Please visit for more information or call Mintel at 312-932-0400.

  • Website Resources:— Mintel Reports— Search “chowder” for the article “Soups, Chowders and Stews” from Prepared Foods— Progresso Soup— A history of soup