Oliver Balch interviews the chief sustainability officer of the venerable New Jersey company about why ‘sippable soups’ mark a turning point in its response to the disruptive forces buffeting the food industry
Cast yourself into the future. You’re a twenty-second century historian. On your desk (or your virtual holographic work station, who knows?) is a list you’re working up of breakthrough innovations from the past century.
Dave Stangis is adamant that they should. For Campbell Soup’s passionate sustainability chief, the arrival of “soup on the go” on our supermarket shelves marks a historic milestone.
His rationale? Even Stangis, who has been with the New Jersey-based food manufacturer for a decade, doesn’t seek to make a case for the soups’ gastronomic exceptionalism, although Parmesan Bisque and Cheesy Potato with Bacon may sound a little more adventurous than Tomato or Minestrone.
Nor does the fact that two of the nine new sippable flavours carry Campbell’s Healthy Request stamp, signalling their low-fat, low-cholesterol content, shout history-in-the-making.
Out of the rethink came a new statement as to its governing purpose. 'Real food that matters for life’s moments'
What excites the chief sustainability officer of this historic firm (it marks its 150th anniversary next year) is the transformational thinking that lies behind the soup’s creation.
Last year, Campbell undertook a revision of its sustainability strategy. Out of the rethink came a new statement as to its governing purpose. “Real food that matters for life’s moments”.
Spelled out like that, it seems ordinary enough. But, like the company’s sippable soups, there’s more to those seven words than meets the eye.
For Stangis, the firm’s new sustainability strategy marks the point in Campbell’s when social, ethical and environmental considerations no longer just feed into the company’s strategy. They become the company’s strategy.
It all comes down to a single word: disruption. Global mega-trends have buffeted every major industry sector in recent years, but few have seen the ground shift beneath them quite as much as Big Food.
First there’s climate change, with threats of desertification, freak weather and failed harvests. Then there’s demographics, with an estimated increase of two billion hungry mouths over the next three decades. Then land, with ever-increasing claims over its use and ownership. Then soil, with its reducing fertility. And finally water, with its ever greater scarcity.
The challenges we're seeing in retail, around the way we sell, and consumers buy, food are probably going to accelerate
Many sustainability folk might be tempted to bury their heads in the pillow and call in sick. Not Stangis. The former Intel employee (he spent 12 years at the US tech firm) is made of sterner stuff.
As part of last year’s strategy review, Campbell undertook an extensive study of the mega-trends heading the food industry’s way.
In addition to the above issues, the “strategic foresights” project considered lifestyle changes, growing demand for healthy foods, and concerns about food origins. The process taught Stangis and his colleagues that external pressures are as serious as they had feared, if not more so.
Climate change poses big challenges to food production. (Credit: Bernard Staehli/Shutterstock)
“I think that the challenges we're seeing in retail, around the way we sell food and the way consumers buy food ... are going to continue. They're probably even going to accelerate,” he states.
Curiously, Campbell’s sustainability chief sees this as a positive. The black clouds on the near horizon present a chance for the company to “get on the front foot” and become more agile in its response, he says.
“From a sustainability perspective, they [disputors] energise me. I see them as really cool opportunities to bring new ideas.”
I love strategizing around business … I am constantly trying to translate my desire for change
That’s no bad thing. Listed corporations with long histories like Campbell sometimes need shock therapy to speed the pace of change.
Campbell was hardly standing still prior to its recent strategic revision. A fixture in all the major sustainability rankings - the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the 100 Best Corporate Citizens List, World’s Most Sustainable Corporations, and so on – the US food giant is widely seen as a leading light.
But that doesn’t mean it has fully embraced the need for change, nor the suite of business opportunities presented by the food industry’s rapidly changing landscape.
Healthier foods, organic foods, foods on-the-run, climate resilient foods, affordable foods, foods with fully traceable ingredients, local foods: the list of burgeoning, still largely untapped, markets is vast.
Stangis stands out not only because of his determination to see opportunities in disruption. His also has a passion for the cut and thrust of business.
For most sustainability professionals, doing business is a necessary adjunct to their real passion: the tackling of urgent social and environmental challenges. Not so Stangis. A holder of both an MBA and a Master’s in Environmental Health, he attests to a genuine love of business as well as sustainability.
“I really am trying to drive change that sticks. I don't want to have to go back and try to fix a process or initiative in a year’s time
“I love strategizing around business … I am constantly trying to translate my desire [for change] and my content expertise into strategies and tactics that deliver value to the people who are trying to run a business every day,” he says.
That means working alongside the procurement manager, helping her find the best ingredients at the lowest price. Or linking up with the manufacturing team to get Campbell’s hatful of popular brands out of the door on schedule.
Seeing everything through a business perspective gives him a suspicion of fads or quick fixes. If the company is going to confront climate risks and sell its soups simultaneously, it requires robust systems that “deliver change for the long term,” he says.
“I really am trying to drive change that sticks at a company level . . . I don't want to have to go back and try to fix a process or initiative in a year’s time.”
Re-enter the sippable soups. The reason this modest product innovation excites Stangis so much is the transformative thinking that lies behind them.
The innovative new products are the direct result of Campbell identifying the major disruptions threatening its sector (one of them a move towards snacking, rather than three-square meals a day) and considering these in light of its core values, one of which is to promote real, healthy food.
Ultimately, we’re trying to help our companies see and predict and adapt to the future
In other words, sustainability insights and concerns are driving product development and marketing, and vice versa, he says.
For Stangis, it marks the culmination of a decade-long, personal mission at the food giant. “I didn’t come here to push a sustainability agenda,” he says. “I came here to leverage those [sustainability] concepts and make the company better.”
Campbell is not there yet. Results over recent quarters have not been stellar, with one-off events like an early carrot harvest and a product recall exacerbating the longer-term challenges felt by Big Food more generally.
Sippable soups by themselves won’t turn around the sales figures of the world’s largest soup manufacturer. But if Stangis is right, and the company really can use sustainability-based tools and insights to turn disruptive trends into business opportunities, then more such innovations should follow.
“I see [sustainability professionals] as futurists within corporations,” he says. “Ultimately, we’re trying to . . . help our companies see and predict and adapt to the future.”
Conservative though the culture of Big Food may be, Campbell is not above stepping out and being bold when required.
The food giant’s recent shopping list includes a variety of edgy(ish), clean food-focused brands
Back in 2016 it caused a stir by becoming the first (and still the only) food company to call for mandatory labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. In the same spirit, it now runs a website – whatsinmyfood.com – revealing all the nice stuff and not-so-nice stuff (MSGs, high fructose corn syrup, and so on) across its product portfolio.
Stangis’ enthusiastic embrace of disruptive forces will be bolstered by a strong portfolio of recent acquisitions. like snacks company Snyder's-Lance, organic baby food firm Plum Organics and organic non-dairy broth and soup manufacturer Pacific Foods, among others.
Whether sippable soups really do make the history books is by no means certain. If they sit on the shelf alone, novel but unnoticed, then ‘no’. If they symbolise a sector-wide shift towards genuine sustainably produced foods, then maybe, just maybe, Stangis’ confidence will prove well-placed.