Household food staples of the 1960s have had a tough time of it lately. Production of the glorious Twinkie was halted for a while a few years ago when its maker went through bankruptcy, and now comes news that the Campbell Soup Company — a brand so iconic and associated with American meals that its soup cans were painted by Andy Warhol — is struggling, too.
According to a report in the New York Times, Campbell’s earnings fell 50 percent last quarter, sales of its soups have been declining, and expensive acquisitions have left the company dealing with significant debt without providing any help in the sales department. The company’s stock price trails the rest of the stock market and has lost a third of its value, and the company’s chief executive, Denise Morrison, stepped down under pressure earlier this year. And now the company’s Board of Directors is facing a challenge that pits a hedge fund and dissidents who want the business to be sold or restructured against the heirs of John Dorrance, the chemist who invented condensed soups more than a century ago. The Dorrance descendants own 40 percent of Campbell’s stock, have lived lifestyles of great wealth as a result of their descendants’ creation, and want to make sure that any changes that occur happen on their terms.
Why is Campbell’s struggling? The Times notes that the company is “fighting headwinds like declining consumer interest in packaged food and a preference for fresh ingredients over highly processed soup from a can.” Some people believe that the company has lost its focus with its acquisitions and needs to return to a soup-centric model, and analyst contend that the company hasn’t adequately responded to marketplace changes. The article points out that “Campbell Soup cans, for example, have barely changed since 1900, and the top sellers remain tomato, chicken noodle and cream of mushroom.”
Of course, for many of us, those three soup options were familiar ingredients of meals when we were growing up. In the Webner household, Campbell’s tomato soup (made with milk, not water) and grilled cheese was a highly popular dinner, countless casseroles were made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup was the inevitable lunch if you were home sick from school with a cold.
I hope Campbell’s can figure out its problems. Although I haven’t had a lot of Campbell’s soup lately, there’s something comforting about seeing those familiar red and white cans on the grocery store shelves, and I still think tomato soup and grilled cheese is something to be relished on a cold winter’s day.