Campbell’s launches Pot Noodle challenge

Soups are undisputedly Campbell’s forte, but will the company be able to achieve similar success with its UK snack brands? Only if it is prepared to take more risks, says Caroline Parry

Campbell’s is perhaps the most famous soup brand in the world, partly thanks to pop artist Andy Warhol’s soup-can prints. Now, more than 30 years since Warhol used the ubiquitous can in his work, the company is hoping its UK snack brands can develop a similarly iconic status.

This summer sees the company’s UK subsidiary, Campbell Grocery Products, challenge the might of Unilever Bestfoods by extending its Batchelors Super Noodles brand into a pot (MW last week). Campbell’s bought the Batchelors brand, including Cup a Soup, from Unilever in 2001.

Industry experts agree that Super Noodles To Go is a natural brand extension, but question whether Campbell’s has the marketing culture to take on market leader Unilever’s Pot Noodle.

One food marketer says that while Campbell’s has an extremely successful history in soup and a strong brand in Batchelors, the company’s management style is too conservative for the UK. He says: “Campbell’s in the UK is traditionally run by Americans, which means it tends to have a conservative, numbers-focused management style. They do not tend to take a long-term view.”

Campbell’s current strategy is to drive sales in the convenience sector by developing its brands into portable formats. It has already launched its instant soup brand Cup a Soup as a cup format, to make it more convenient for the lunch-time market. It follows innovations such as Homepride Soup in a Bottle, which allows consumers to reseal the bottle after dispensing the required amount.

Campbell’s portfolio, which also includes Oxo, V8 juices and Fray Bentos , accounted for 0.7 per cent of sales in the total packaged food market in 2002, compared to Unilever’s 4.9 per cent (Euromonitor). As might be expected, Campbell’s is particularly strong in the soup market, with 14.5 per cent of sales. Batchelors Cup a Soup is the leading brand in instant soup, with 71.2 per cent of sales.

However, Batchelors Super Noodles is also a strong brand and leads in the pouch instant noodles category, with 61 per cent of sales in 2002. The category is worth just under £50m and was predicted to grow by 4.8 per cent in 2003. Super Noodle’s position is strong because of its appeal to an older market and because it is more likely to be used as part of a main meal than some of its rivals.

It is clear that Campbell’s saw the potential of the Batchelors brand when it acquired the business for £1bn from Unilever in 2001. However, as one industry insider points out, it has taken it three years to bed the acquisition down. He says: “I think it has taken the company until now to understand snack foods – it has been stuck in the soup mentality.”

Pot Noodle, which Unilever relaunched with a significant marketing investment two years ago, has also performed well, accounting for 91 per cent of value sales in 2002. The cup/bowl instant noodle market is the largest category within noodles and was expected to reach sales of £127.6m last year. Pot Noodle’s success can be attributed to the launch of variants such as Posh Noodle and Seedy Sanchez, and its controversial “Slag of all Snacks” campaign, created by HHCL/Red Cell.

It is understood that Super Noodles To Go has been in development for several years and that it is an idea developed by Unilever. Observers say Campbell’s should have struck in 2001 when Unilever was restructuring its food division in 2001 and Pot Noodle was not performing as well as it is now.

The food marketer says: “Food marketing is all about timing and taking risks when you launch products. Campbell’s does not have a risk-taking management style and Unilever will know that they are doing it now. Unilever has a significant marketing budget and could divert money to invest more heavily in one brand if necessary.”

The Batchelors advertising account was reviewed by Campbell’s UK marketing director Tim Perman last autumn. He moved the account from Mother, which created the West End Story-style Super Noodles campaign, to Delaney Lund Knox Warren. It is understood that Campbell’s plans to invest £5m in the launch of Super Noodles To Go and will position it as a slightly older brand. The campaign is expected to focus on the product as a healthier alternative to Pot Noodle. There is some doubt that this will capture the imagination of its target market.

Another food marketer says: “The Mother campaign was an incredible step-change for Super Noodles. It changed from persuading mothers to use it as an alternative to potatoes to focusing on blokes coming back from the pub drunk and hungry. When Campbell’s bought Super Noodles, it really could not understand the rational benefits of this campaign.”

The launch of Super Noodles To Go, whatever its positioning, is a development Unilever will watch with interest. The battle will keep both brands on their toes and the marketing investment and innovation likely to follow can only be a good thing for the category.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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