Campbell’s drops ‘Soup Wars’ advertising strategy

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

The Campbell Soup Company has ended its part in the so-called ‘Soup Wars’, during which it attacked rival soup manufacturer Progresso in its advertising – even though it seems that the ads worked.

The original advertising for its Select Harvest line of soups featured a blindfolded woman tasting the Campbell’s soup and listing fresh ingredients, and then tasting the Progresso soup and listing ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG). This led Progresso to respond by announcing that it was already in the process of reformulating its products to remove MSG, although it said it would have preferred to make the announcement once the whole line had been reformulated – thereby infuriating the Glutamate Association, which pointed out that MSG has been the victim of poor public perception even though it “has long been recognized as safe”.

Progresso then retaliated with a campaign that pointed out that some Campbell’s soups still contained MSG and Campbell had also used an ad that targeted its rival in the New York Times. It showed a can of Progresso with the caption "Made With MSG"​, which ran alongside an image of Campbell's Select Harvest soup with caption "Made With TLC", ​or "tender love and care".

Now Campbell’s has chosen to change its advertising tactics with a new campaign that focuses on the perceived positive aspects of Select Harvest’s ingredients, rather than the perceived negative attributes of its competitor.

Targeting new customers

According to the publication Advertising Age, ​the change is due to a shift from establishing brand awareness within the soup category by explaining what the soup isn’t, to attempting to bring new customers to try the soup by explaining what it is.

But the negative advertising campaign did seem to work.

Commenting on the company’s third quarter results at the end of May, Campbell's president and CEO Douglas Conant​said: "…We’ve delivered one of the strongest US Soup sales performances in years, with sales up six percent…In particular, condensed cooking soups provided strong growth, as our value marketing message resonated with consumers. We also are pleased with the introduction and ongoing performance of 'Campbell's Select Harvest'.”

MSG controversy

MSG has long been marked by bad publicity.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assigned the independent Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to examine the available data on glutamate safety. FASEB reported back that consumption of MSG at usual levels did not pose a health risk.

However, it did identify symptoms which occurred amongst some people after consuming MSG-treated food, such as chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat and drowsiness, but noted that these tended to be suffered after consuming (abnormally) large quantities of MSG.

MSG has been classified as ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) by the FDA since 1959, although the FDA does require it to be acknowledged in the ingredients listing of foods in which it is present.

This classification has since been backed up by various bodies including the World Health Organization and the European Scientific Committee for Foods.

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