As part of WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2023, Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer, Meals and Beverages, at Campbell’s Soup, spoke to WARC’s Carree L. Syrek about NFTs, the emotional heart of the brand, and the power of social listening.

WARC subscribers can access the full Marketer’s Toolkit 2023 here. Non-subscribers can access a sample version here.

Linda Lee

Linda Lee, Chief Marketing Officer, Meals and Beverages, Campbell’s Soup

Over the last two years, faced with the pandemic and a myriad of unknowns, marketers were really challenged. Can you tell me how Campbell’s fared?

When the pandemic hit, we paused everything. We needed to assess what was needed to move forward, what needed to stop and what would become of the guiding light that existed in the plan. The articulation of our plan got a lot crisper, obvious and tighter when we decided that we would only do marketing that provides either comfort and or utility. The elevation of this empathy was important. This was not marketers acting differently than consumers because we were all in this together.

That experience really provided clarity – this is what consumers come to our brands for and what our employees are proud to be a part of. That is why this company has existed for 153 years: to provide comfort and utility. What we kept was our strategy of winning in soup, making sure that soup is modernized and continues to be relevant, especially for those younger generations, and the pandemic reaffirmed that the growth was naturally there… How do we keep it interesting? Then we went from a pandemic into an inflationary environment and that's what's new to the plan: how we reinforce the value that our soups and different meals or products provide.

In the middle of the pandemic, you rebranded your labels and launched NFTs. Did the success of these initiatives surprise you?

The things that we've done that intersect with culture, in what we thought was a bold way for a legacy brand to act, have been the most surprising [with regard to] how open consumers have been to them and how responsive they've been. For example, we launched a Campbell's NFT along with the launch of our new labels, given that art has always been a part of this brand. I'll tell you when you touch a label that’s this iconic there's a lot of risk – but people embraced it. And we did that alongside an NFT. We also launched a “can of candle” with Camp, the toy store. Grilled cheese and tomato soup scented, chicken noodle soup scented… the speed of which those sold out was crazy. These are actually smaller activations that we used a very scrappy budget on, and they definitely tapped into the love of Campbell's but in such a different modern way.

How are the current negative economic factors affecting your planned strategies?

The recession is real. That's something that's led to a new effort on our end around value, marketing and messaging. At a time like this, it's important to not cut back on our marketing. It's time to lean in. But lean in not just to market, it’s leaning into how we can help our consumers. The empathy piece, which has been a thread for Campbell’s over the last three years, is still there, but it just becomes a different kind of the empathy.

If you think about what consumers are experiencing, there's a loss of comfort, a loss of peace of mind, and in some cases a loss of enjoyment. Those have been the three areas that we see as a result of what's happening in this economic downturn. Consumers are facing those emotions, so how do our brands and our categories then show up for them in all of this? So in that loss of comfort, that loss of “the good things in life” – that's where the familiar, the guaranteed experience, provides value. How do we make those good things happen easier?

Lastly, around this loss of enjoyment – it’s in the small choices that you can and get to make. How do we bring that sense of discovery? For Campbell’s that has shown up as new flavors, and the creative hacks that you can do to make meals different and not the same thing every time. What are we doing through our brands to make sure we're providing comfort, utility and discovery?

Let’s talk about Chunky soup and your Twitch and Madden football activations to gamers. Historically, Chunky was burly men and sometimes their moms enjoying the heartiness and comfort of a “soup that eats like a meal”. How did this come about?

Ultimately, at the core of what we do – the marketing and building of our brands and keeping them relevant is two main pieces. The first is you have to know the truth of your brand and have that clarity of what consumers want from you. The consumer tells us what we’re valued for, and it’s our job to make sure we know that and stay true to it. And then there is culture. The magic is finding the intersection of what you know, what kind of value proposition are you offering and what is happening in the world today that matters to our consumers in their lives.

It's having your finger on the pulse of what consumers care about, talk about and what they are reacting to. That's really what culture is. That's when the magic starts – when you find that intersection and when it's authentic. That's the context around brands, culture and younger consumers when it comes to a brand like Chunky.

The articulation of soup that “eats like a meal”, in campaigns past, as you said, was through these big NFL players and their moms. So we asked: what would it be like to inject or intersect younger culture here? During the pandemic, via our social listening, as well as our own experiences, saw that people really wanted an efficient way to get protein that's affordable and easy.

In that first year of the pandemic we pivoted the message. We needed to show those big bowls of all the goodness that's in a Chunky soup because that is what is culturally needed and relevant today. It's not just the warmth and smile of a player and his mom. Let's make sure that the protein message is elevated, and let's bring the “every person” into the story as well.

We observed that lunch was growing as well in the behavior of gamers. If you recall that first year of the pandemic, we didn't know what was going to happen with the football season. And as a result, we asked, without football, what else are consumers doing? Looking at the younger consumers caused us to ask a lot of new questions just to broaden our aperture of what the “relevant moments” are that consumers wanted in a “soup that eats like a meal” but is here and now reflective in their life. And the gaming space started to open up for us. That's where Madden came into play. Madden seemed like the right intersection of where we've been, but also where we're going with the in-blending of the two audiences.

Ultimately our role is to follow our consumers. We have different audiences within Chunky. So the build was – let's look at the younger consumer. Where are their lives and interests going? How do we continue to evolve and still be true to the brand? What makes Chunky, Chunky? Chunky means being always on the ready, it fuels your day.

Campbell’s leverages data and insights gathered from social media. Can you expand on your listening approach and how that has impacted your marketing planning?

I spent six years in consumer insights, so I think of social listening as a modern-day consumer research tool instead of having to create questionnaires that you asked consumers to answer in a very unnatural way. If you’re “listening”, it’s like real-time research at your fingertips.

You have to start with a hypothesis. Today we have too many data points and it can be paralyzing. And if you think the data alone is going to tell you the answer, you're going to be fishing and hunting for a long time, or you could be misdirected if you solely look at what the data theoretically tells you. You have to start with a hypothesis, then use data to either validate or invalidate your hypothesis. That is the core to social listening.

During the last three years, this pace of marketing – not only the always-on in terms of content, but always-on in terms of listening – has provided invaluable insights. We understand that we don't have to react to everything, but we do have to go deeper into what's happening and find the intersections, to where our brands can actually bring comfort or utility.

You are already dipping into Web3 and the metaverse. What opportunities do you see there?

None of us really know, even the people who claim to. I'm a bit dubious when people speak with such authority because none of us know, just like none of us knew what Web2 was. It's about keeping our eye open to what is evolving, not being afraid to enter and try things that make sense. It's okay that not everything's going to work out. I'd rather experiment than just hold back and do nothing, but also ensuring that we are planning the right amount of investment knowing that there is a high ramp up the change curve, and no one knows where it's going to net out.

It's continuing to evolve and find its place, certainly with the virtual world(s) with Chunky and inside of Madden. We're also doing some things with Fortnight this upcoming season as well. No Roblox yet but given Walmart's recent news, we may be experimenting in that. It's keeping our finger on the pulse of Web3, seeing where it makes sense for our brands and not being afraid, but being responsible in this investment.

Let’s talk for a bit about what Campbell’s is doing in the retail media space. Are you in the experimental stage here or have you already jumped in with both feet?

I'd say we’re beyond experimenting, we're investing and continue to invest. This is another great example of what retail media was, to what it's become and its continued evolution. We continue to not only watch those evolutions but be the first to play there. I don't think it's just playing because those are real dollars that we are playing with and, we should be held accountable for that. It's all about shifting and being flexible. Where we will go to get the best performance? But it's also, how do we know what the performance is? There are so many elements of retail media, it starts with clarity of the objective, and therefore based on that objective, what's the right metric that we should be measuring to determine its effectiveness? And as we move dollars around, is it performing to our expectations?

How do you feel about being the steward of this 153-year-old brand that everyone knows?

It’s certainly humbling because it's such an enduring brand. But I'd also say, I've worked in almost every consumer category, and for other amazing brands. But with Campbell’s there's definitely a depth of connection to our consumers and in the role that we play in our consumers lives. I'm not sure there are many brands that you would consider on the same level of delivering nourishment, to bodies and hearts.

I've described it as this is the first brand that I've worked on that is at the center of the plate, at that dinner table, where everyone is around. There's a specialness, an emotion, a memory, a story... Everyone has something to share and to connect to and it’s the food that connects people, it lives in that space in a way that I've never experienced with other brands that I have worked on. That makes this so much more than a job and that is pretty awesome.