When temperatures drop, soup sales heat up. But in recent years, consumer attitudes toward the category have been chillier than winter in Alaska, and declining sales of this venerable and undeniably versatile dish have left soup manufacturers in need of some comfort themselves.
Thankfully, increased taste for international flavors and hunger for novel packaging formats are fueling the emergence of new soup category trends, and consumers are showing signs of warming up to this age-old dish once again. Yet more significantly, the advancements in flavors and formats are providing food and beverage industry players with valuable insight on product innovation and reinvention.
The story starts with declining soup sales, already a long-term trend by 2011, when IRI reported ready-to-serve U.S. soup retail sales had fallen more than 6 percent since 2008. The trend is also dominant globally: Soup sales have “been on a downward trajectory across most of the Western world for half a decade,” noted Euromonitor International Research Analyst Daniel Grimsey earlier this year. But he has more than an inkling of the issue: “the problem is not necessarily soup’s fault, but its packaging…Consumers are rejecting this packaging format.”
As Grimsey notes, the cans synonymous with soup are not always easy to open, lack the kind of individuality Millennial shoppers respect and are a heavy packaging format, which contributes to their carbon footprint. Yet, as a walk down the soup aisle reveals, cans still dominate the marketplace.
However, soup makers have been working hard to turn this around with innovations not only in processing and packaging but also in flavors, formulation and branding. Thanks to these strategic shifts, coupled with healthier consumer choices that favor these new formulations, Euromonitor predicts the soup category will grow by 6 percent by 2017.
So what have successful soup manufacturers done to stop the soup slide?
• Adapted Flavors and Formulation
As with any food product, taste, sustenance and convenience are king. So not surprisingly, fresh flavors and nutrient-rich formulations are helping fuel soup’s comeback. That’s one reason the sales of ready-to-serve soups and liquid broths have been growing over the past four years, according to ACNielsen ScanTrack reports, while condensed soup, a holiday casserole staple, has continued its decline. Regional and ethnic flavors, including Asian formulations like pho and Hispanic offerings such as posole and menudo are increasingly popular with taste-adventurous Millennials and with non-white consumers, whose numbers continue to climb. Tapping into this trend, Seinfeld-inspired SoupMan just released four Louisiana-influenced flavors, including Jambalaya and Chicken Gumbo.
In the broth category, which grew by 5.2 percent last year according to ScanTrack, the fastest growing flavor category—posting 21.8 percent growth—was “all other,” which includes seafood, mushroom and other vegetable stocks that have risen up to challenge stalwarts beef and chicken. This reflects the fact that organic, vegetarian and healthier, all-natural formulations are also on-trend, and helping shoppers push past old notions of packaged soup as a food high in preservatives and sodium and low on freshness and nutrition.
• Selected Modern and Sustainable Packaging and Design
Helping to drive a shift in attitudes at the shelf is a revolution underway in soup packaging. Dramatic changes have already taken place in one sub-category: the broth aisle. Formerly a solid wall of cans, it now features a solid billboard of cartons in single-serve and larger recloseable sizes. The package has now claimed 51 percent of U.S. broth unit market share.
In soups overall, 89 percent are still in cans, but that’s changing quickly; cans lost 7 percent of the market in just the past four years. Cartons, which have 7 percent of the market and are the fastest-growing format in the category, as well as plastic tubs and pouches, are all gaining at the cans’ expense. In fact, Campbell’s shocked the soup world in 2012 setting aside its iconic red and white can in favor of more graphically exciting “Go Soup” pouches aimed at Millennials. Pouches now account for about 3 percent of all soup sales, largely thanks to Campbell’s. But many branded and store-brand competitors have chosen paper-based cartons. For example, Progresso rolled out its new line of Artisan soups in Tetra Recart® packaging, stressing the package’s environmental traits and noting its superior preservation properties for flavor.
• Marketed to Millennials
One of the main reasons cartons are the fastest growing packaging format in the soup aisle is that Millennials, arguably the most important shoppers in the marketplace today, are strongly attracted to their modern look and ‘green halo’ effect. According to Brand Amplitude, nearly two-thirds of Millennials surveyed preferred the idea of soup from a carton, citing the package’s sustainability and the ability to reclose and refrigerate leftover carton soup for future meals.
Dovetailing with packaging, innovative design is exceedingly important to pulling in shoppers in their 20s and 30s. Unlike their brand-loyal parents, Millennials are restless adventure-seekers in the marketplace and frequently product-hop based on shelf appeal and novelty of flavors. Arresting, eye-popping graphics are a must for this easily bored, easily lured shopping demographic.
The soup category’s reinvention has far broader implications for food and beverage industry players by proving that by thinking out of the box, figuratively rather than literally in this case, it is possible to change the fortunes of an entire product category. Similarly, the makers of processed tomatoes have already to begun to re-invent the product, and ready-to-eat meals, beans and vegetables are undoubtedly next. As manufacturers continue to respond to consumer wants and needs, expect to see more exciting packaging innovations heating up the center-store shelves.
Suley Muratoglu, vice president, Marketing & Product Management, Tetra Pak Inc., U.S. & Canada, currently runs the company’s presence in core categories, including dairy, beverage and food. Further industry insights from him can be found at www.doingwhatsgood.us. Tetra Pak (tetrapak.com/ca-en) is the world's leading food processing and packaging solutions company.