'Souperstars' in the Making

January 1, 2008
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‘Souperstars’ in the Making

By Kate Rzepka

Items in the private label soup category are well-rehearsed and deliver a consistently warm and palatable performance.

American poet, singer and songwriter Patti Smith once said of her craft: “Rock ‘n roll is dream soup; what’s your brand?”  
What did Smith mean by this statement?  Easy. As a woman who became known as punk rock’s poet laureate, Smith understood that quality music should incorporate a generous mixture of styles. And, more importantly, she knew her unique blend of revolutionary rhythms need not always conform to the flavor-of-the-month sameness taking place nationwide.
That’s fine for dream soup, but what about real soup?  Truth be told, the recipe for success is not all that different from what Smith suggests. The soup category is wide-open and accepting of innovation. Just because most grocery aisles boast the red and white Campbell’s can as their star feature doesn’t mean there’s no room for alternative rock-star soup performers. In fact, the opposite is true. And as the soup category holds open auditions, private label manufacturers are stepping up and wowing soup groupies time and time again.
Break into the Business
When discussing the soup category, it’s important to note that soup is a mainstay in the American diet. Richard Cagley, senior brand manager for Bay Valley Foods in Pittsburgh, says that although retailers’ display events drive significant incremental volume and traffic September through March, non-promoted sales throughout the year are more stable than one might expect.
Soup Performance
Category Dollar Sales (in millions) % Change Vs. Yr. Ago Dollar Share Unit Sales (in millions) % Change vs. Yr. Ago Avg. Price
Per Unit
Total private label $365.41.6%9.0 % 409.1-1.4%$0.89
Total category $4,069.42.1%100.0%3,723.8-3.1% $1.09
Total private label $8.5-2.1%7.1%5.7-4.2%$1.47
Total subcategory $118.72.6%100.0%69.3-1.6%$1.71
Condensed Wet Soup
Private label $171.80.6%13.9%221.3 -1.9%$0.78
Total subcategory $1,239.8-2.1%100.0%1,154.8-4.8%$1.07
Dry Soup
Private label $21.7-5.9%7.3%21.5 -5.1%$1.01
Total subcategory $297.4 -2.4%100.0%179.9 -4.2%$1.65
Private label $3.3 -0.5%0.9%5.7 -12.6%$0.57
Total subcategory $347.64.1%100.0%1,043.0-7.9%$0.33
RTS Broth
Private label $82.913.2%17.6%103.3 6.2%$0.80
Total subcategory $471.5 11.7%100.0%390.3 2.4%$1.21
RTS Wet Soup
Private label $77.2 -4.2%4.8%51.5 -9.2%$1.50
Total subcategory $1,594.5 3.3%100.0% 886.4 3.2%$1.80
Source: Information Resources Inc.
Total U.S. supermarket, drug store and mass merchandise sales for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 7, 2007, excluding Wal-Mart.

“Soup usage, as an affordable and nutritious meal solution, supports year-round consumption,” Cagley says.
Brenda K. Phelps, marketing consultant for Morgan Foods Inc., Auburn, Ind., agrees.
“Soup is traditionally thought of as a seasonal product when, in fact, it sells well all months of the year. Therefore, retailers shouldn’t forget about this category, even in July,” she says.  
In other words, even though consumers might be quick to label soup as a warm and filling wintery treat of a meal, they also are likely to reach for soup as a summertime snack. And that’s the beauty of the category — there’s indeed a soup for all seasons.
Get Discovered
Private label soup stages good competition for its national brand counterparts across the board. According to Cagley, on the whole, private label soup gets high marks along “the same consumer-centric dimensions of quality, health and wellness, convenience and variety.”  
When pitted against branded rivals, private label soups have a good chance of attracting the attention of a wide audience. And when introduced at a desirable price point, consumers generally are amenable to giving private label soup a try. Moreover, when the sampling experience is favorable, consumers respond by becoming repeat purchasers.
Although sampling is one important way to introduce private label products to consumers who seek out the red and white cans in the soup aisle, Phelps also advocates a strategic merchandising program to gain private label enthusiasts.  
“Private label soup is most effective when merchandised with a feature and a display,” Phelps says, “which can be accomplished in various ways. The most effective way might include an end-aisle or middle-of-the-store pallet display, ideally cross-merchandised with a compatible item. It also helps if we are able to do this before the brand does, so that the consumer has already loaded her pantry with the private label products.”  
Lisa Stewart, director of marketing and public relations for Old World Spices & Seasonings, Kansas City, Mo., says, “Let’s face it, a soup mix needs to hit a consumer at the right moment, with the right packaging appeal, just as he or she is rushing around the store at 5:35 in the evening. The soup must scream ‘I’m easy; I’m warm; take me home.’”
Even though experts share different theories as to how to best grab consumer attention, each purports a valid point: Merchandising reels in the consumers, and sampling opportunities hook them.
Bay Valley Foods’ Cagley offers this tip: “Generate trial with attractive label graphics, in-store signage and product sampling.”  Repeat purchases will then be earned through the winning combination of quality, innovation and appealing pricing and promotions, he adds.
Convenience — Not Always Canned
Undeniably, the soup category has taken off in a big way, and retailers are taking advantage of growth in the aisle by offering unique store brand items. However, some segments of the soup category show great potential, and retailers should not overlook these items.
According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), private label ready-to-serve broths have seen a 13.2 percent jump in dollar sales since just last year.
Aseptic broths have seen particularly excellent growth, Cagley notes.
“Aseptic broths are a convenient way to add great flavor to recipes; they’ve caught on and have moved from emerging to mainstream,” he says. “Household penetration for aseptic broth, while modest compared to the various soup segments, is growing rapidly.”
Understanding that convenience is paramount, Morgan Foods’ Phelps mentions the growing popularity of microwaveable soup bowls. Unlike Campbell’s Soup-at-Hand line, which has not been as well-received as anticipated, microwaveable soup bowls are more familiar to the average soup consumer.
“Consumers may not like drinking their soup,” Phelps reasons. “With the microwave bowl ... consumption occurs in the traditional way, with a spoon.”  
Phelps and Cagley both suggest that retailers keep an eye on this growing trend.
Old World Spices’ Stewart takes this notion one step further, discussing private label dry soup mixes that require only the addition of water. Talk about convenience!  
“We have created a line of soup bases that grocery delis and sub shops may use, and we provide them with an array of recipes that incorporates vegetables from their produce department, salad bar or sandwich bar,” Stewart says. “In other words, we not only create the soup or soup base in our lab, but we can provide menu development based on produce they already are purchasing and on the demographics they want to attract.”  
Stewart stresses the value of convenient packaging.
“Take-out is huge,” she says. “Some canny produce managers have created soup mixes that come in printed flexible form-fill-and-seal pouches that can be wrapped up on a tray with the vegetables needed to make the soup.”  
Folks have wholesome, natural recipes and ingredients at their fingertips without the guesswork of whether or not the end product will taste good, she adds. They feel as if they are doing the cooking themselves without that really having to be the case.
Healthy Soup — Music to the Mouth
National and store brands enjoy healthy competition with respect to luring health-conscious consumers. Most notably, retailers are opting for healthier soup offerings that are lower in sodium and fat. The organic soup segment also is experiencing growth, as consumers equate natural ingredients with healthfulness.
Private label manufacturers continue to receive a tricky request — retailers want soups to be reformulated with less sodium and trans fat.
“The Progresso emulations are growing rapidly and so are the low-sodium varieties formulated with sea salt,” Phelps says. “Many retailers continue to add these items to their assortment.”
With so many soups to choose from — in both national brand and private label renditions — how can you steer more consumers to your store brand?
The trick is to treat your soup products as if they are competing for that coveted limelight. Pull out all the stops. Like Patti Smith and her punk prowess, you must serve up a product that plays on your company’s strengths and puts forth a positive image, and invite consumers back again and again with your soup’s distinctiveness and bold flavor.
As Old World Spices’ Stewart suggests:  “Stress natural, easy, no trans fat, and put it where the shopper is going to trip over it.”

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