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Sodium: Campbell u-turn a cautionary tale, say branding experts

By Elaine Watson , 19-Jul-2011
Last updated on 19-Jul-2011 at 21:15 GMT

While Campbell Soup’s reduced sodium u-turn pales into insignificance when compared with the New Coke debacle, it should serve as a cautionary tale for all food manufacturers embarking on reformulation work, according to marketing experts.

Their comments came as the industry digested Campbell Soup’s controversial plans to put some salt back into its Select Harvest soup line in a bid to revive flagging sales.

The problem, noted Beverly Murray, founder of branding agency R&M, is that Campbell didn’t just dip its toe in the water with some stealthy, under-the-radar sodium reduction, it went for it all guns blazing as part of an overall commitment to ‘nourish people's lives everywhere, every day’.

A slippery slope?

Thus, its u-turn - albeit just on one product line – raised questions about just how strong this commitment actually was, she argued. “Lessening the ‘health’ or ‘perceived health’ of a formulation is a slippery slope for this brand.”

While Coca-Cola was able to learn from the New Coke fiasco and emerge with renewed vigor and a clear sense of what its customers wanted, Campbell might not be so lucky, she predicted.

“New Coke was lucky, consumers made their expectations loud and clear. The brand used the reformulation back step as a launch pad for sales. For Campbell's, I fear their back step might actually be the first of many, especially if they have lost sight of their brand's commitment.”

So what should Campbell have done?

She added: "Was as much thought given to another approach that would have involved its customers in the product's evolution? What would happen if instead of investing marketing dollars into a ‘please try me again’ campaign, Campbell's embarked on a ‘we are absolutely determined to make this work’ campaign?

“Various strategies could have been deployed through product development and marketing channels to engage and educate the consumer.”

Health experts, not surprisingly, are with Murray on this one, and argue that limiting sodium reduction to niche ‘reduced sodium’ lines instead of reformulating standard/core brands (Campbell has stressed that it still makes low-sodium options) will not help the population as a whole adjust to lower sodium foods.

Dr Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington, said Campbell's decision was “disappointing”.

"The only way consumers’ palates will adjust to lower sodium is through cutting it across the board [rather than introducing low sodium sub-brands that would only be consumed by shoppers worried about their blood pressure]", she claimed.

Reformulate by stealth or shout from the rooftops?

One food technologist contacted by this publication noted: “Until the ‘standard offering’ is lower in salt the reduction is not permanent. As soon as consumers hit the tipping point of their priorities then the ROI will become obvious and higher-salt products will no longer be viable.

“During the transition phase, however, there are hazards and difficulties for both sides of the fence.”

Meanwhile, publicizing reformulation efforts on pack was not always wise, he claimed, as certain consumers would always avoid low fat/sodium/sugar products in certain categories, which was frustrating as many would be pleasantly surprised if they did, he added.

“Many consumers perceive low-fat or low-salt food to be lower quality food … I think this perception comes from an assumption that by making a claim the product is trying to justify the phantom drop in quality.”

Who is driving sodium reduction?

One retail industry source, who said his firm was “being pressured to adjust formulations to meet competitors’ NuVal scores [a system that measures the nutritional quality of a food and gives it a score from 1-100]”, said the business case was not always compelling.

“I doubt if ROI is ever entirely clear. Some consumers will try the ‘healthier products’, but it is hard to make them as appealing as they remember.”

But this didn’t mean Campbell was right to turn the clock back, he said. “It is hard to reverse course. I would have tried to improve sales in other ways besides adding back sodium.”

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