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Soup’s Down! How Tired Brands Can Refresh Through Story

By Zachary Vickers

The $4.5 billion U.S. canned soup industry has been flat since 2012, and Campbell’s — with 40 percent of the market share — is the face of this flatness. For years, the company has tried to strike a balance between honoring traditions that have lasted for 150 years and the need to modernize. That balance has been hard to find.

The modern consumer is more health conscious than ever. Recognizing that, Campbell’s worked to go beyond canned soup — “the epitome of a processed food product” — as Jared Koerten, an analyst at Euromonitor, described it. They purchased wellness product lines from Bolthouse Farms and Garden Fresh Gourmet to expand their offering, but it wasn’t long before the company decided to sell both when they failed to increase sales.

If today’s consumers care so much about their health, why then did Campbell’s wholesome products aimed at a major market fail?

This product expansion failed because Campbell’s sudden shift toward nutrition did not align with their brand story. Their embrace of wellness wasn’t a bad idea in principal, but in practice, it rung with inauthenticity. People quickly saw their approach for what it actually was: triage calculated to regain prominence in kitchen pantries and to increase profits — and consumers didn’t buy it, literally.

This is a challenge that many brands across all industries face: How does a company continue to be relatable while staying true to their well-established identity? How does an age-old brand honor tradition while looking to the future?

The answer: in order for a brand to transcend time, they need to invest in a timeless story.

Campbell’s was focused on the “what” of their story and not the “why.” It’s not about the product — a low-sodium soup or low-sugar beverage — it’s about what it emotionally represents to the consumer. Buyers want products or services that they know will improve their lives and empower them to be their best selves — whether that’s a healthy soup, a treadmill designed to have low-impact on a runner’s knees, or software that allows a small business owner to be more efficient, organized, and profitable.

Campbell’s Soup’s story is about togetherness. This idea has been portrayed in the company’s ads time and time and time again, representing families of that particular moment, which was largely represented as white suburbia. In Campbell’s 150 years of existence, the definition of “family” has remained relatively the same until recent decades. Now, “family” has broadened to be more diverse and inclusive — and in 2015 Campbell’s successfully embraced the modern family with a commercial of a real-life married gay couple and their son.

This commercial gets to the “why” of Campbell’s story in a relevant way: the soup isn’t promoted for its flavor or low-sodium or convenience. Rather, it serves as a vehicle for a family to spend time together. With their special edition Star Wars-themed cans as a hook, the ad called back to a classic line from Darth Vader (“I am your father.”) to open an important dialogue that confronted prejudices about what constitutes a “normal family” and also championed inclusion.

The ad remained true to Campbell’s historic brand of providing a classic meal for families to gather around — a comfort food enjoyed amongst the comfort of loved ones — while looking ahead by embracing the family dynamic in an authentic and progressive way. While Campbell’s still seems to be soul-searching, this ad campaign suggests they’re now heading in the right direction.

Other longstanding brands have successfully refreshed without compromising tradition by using a compelling story rooted in what brought them to original prominence.

Founded in 1932, LEGO had never posted a loss until 1998. By 2003, it was $800 million in debt. But by 2015, LEGO overtook Ferrari to become the world’s most powerful brand. So, what went wrong and how did LEGO’s turnaround become one of the greatest in corporate history?

In a similar misstep to Campbell’s, LEGO expanded in inauthentic ways — through jewelry, clothing, a video game company, even theme parks. These distracted from LEGO’s core story: to facilitate creative experiences. In their most dire hour, they dropped the ancillary products and sold the theme parks — a market in which they had no expertise, and it showed when the parks posted a multi-multi-million dollar loss in their first year — to British company Merlin Entertainments. LEGO then returned to their basic building block: the brick itself. They leveraged it to align with their story of creativity, encouraging consumers to share creations on social media and through a crowd-sourced competition.

The 2014 movie, then, was different than previous ventures, because it is emotionally-driven, and rooted in the timeless story of good versus evil. While it is considered excellent branded content, the LEGOs are not the star of the movie, the compelling story is, and the LEGOs are just characters within it, appealing to both children and adults. Where previous ventures outside of the brick have failed, LEGO has succeeded with this movie franchise because, unlike past projects, they relegated the creativity to experts who know movies — Warner Brothers and Hollywood veterans Philip A. Lord and Christopher Robert Miller.

Instead of manipulating their product to force-fit the “what” of trends and other retail spaces, Lego harnessed their “why” — the simplistic potential of its brick in service of the endless possibilities it can manifest. In doing so, they reframed their innovative product from something secondary to whatever popular trend or hit movie of the moment into a vehicle for personal creativity and enlightenment. The brick became more than just a fun toy, it was a tool that helped bring out the best in its user. Today, LEGOs are used by major companies like Google, NASA, Toyota, and Coca-Cola for team-building, problem solving, and brainstorming, as well as academically for storytelling, science, and architectural design.

Old Spice found itself in a similar predicament in the early 2000s. At this time, their market had evolved — young men had become more invested in their personal grooming, creating a demand for new types of men’s body washes and sprays.

Companies like Axe targeted this demographic with edgy, modern appeal, further alienating Old Spice and its nearly 80-year-old brand, which was already seen as dated, uncool, and the choice of especially serious grandfathers. As a result, Old Spice watched its profits and market share dwindle.

But in 2010, Old Spice’s sales increased 60 percent and doubled sales from the year before. Soon after, they were a category leader. So what changed?

“Old Spice didn’t change its logo, it changed the experience,” said Marc Shillum, principal at Method, Inc. a consulting agency for brand designs. If their brand was associated with serious grandfathers — who in their own ways were traditionally viewed as manly men — then Old Spice’s rebrand, through irony and satire that appeals to young audiences, celebrated all men. Through absurd ad campaigns that feature men closing business deals while mountain climbing, sudsed-up centaurs, literal bowling ball hamburgers, Old Spice commented on society’s absurd definition of masculinity. Their tagline: “Believe in Your Smellf” empowered confidence and let men be whatever they wanted, while worrying less about sweat and odor.

And while their attitude changed, Old Spice’s products remained relatively unchanged — which retained their older audience who value classic, quality scents over commercials. And in this way, Old Spice became the scent of every man.

A&W restaurants had made The Atlantic’s “Ten Brands That Will Die in 2012.” And yet, in 2019 the company turned 100. The company’s brand feels a century old — it is retro and pre-war, pre-dating its major competitors McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. This nostalgic vibe, much like Coca-Cola’s unique formula, harkens back to a simpler time.

In 2013, to avoid further floundering, A&W made strategic changes to their food products that better embodied this brand story. They began using hand-breaded chicken tenders instead of freeze-fried products, as well as hormone-free, 100-percent all-beef hot dogs and burgers. They also replaced carbonated soda machines and flavored soda syrups and returned to their 1919 recipe.

These improvements in product quality emotionally resonated with consumers who wanted health-conscious food that wasn’t tainted by factory farms, or dubious restaurant practices, like McDonald’s use of “pink slime.” This was different than Campbell’s, as well as McDonald’s and other competitors because A&W made a genuine commitment by changing their core products, rather than offering niche lines, or a “healthy option.” And they did it in ways that didn’t comprise flavor or quality.

Most importantly, by making these changes, A&W was able to better embody the story they had been telling for nearly a century. You can buy generic root beer anywhere, but if you want the best, you buy the original: A&W. A simpler time is conveyed through a simpler product — in the food industry, simpler equates to fewer processed ingredients and synthetic chemicals that consumers can’t pronounce. The company embraced the nostalgia of their brand and connected it to product quality, telling a story where the original means the purest, the freshest, and most refreshing version of the product.

Brands will eventually tire as markets change and consumers evolve. In order to stay relevant, companies shouldn’t invest in strategies that deviate from the fundamental “why” of their brand. Rather, by investing in a timeless, compelling story that emotionally resonate with consumers, clients, or users of a service, companies will transcend time — updating their story to the current moment while remaining rooted in the core values that made them successful in the first place.

Zachary Vickers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.