Shifting away from the center

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — The headline of this column may make one think it is about politics or retail trends, but it is not — It’s about soup and candy. On Jan. 29, the Campbell Soup Co. and Hershey Co. made announcements that one day may be perceived as significant. Both are shifting resources away from their core product portfolios into ventures they view as having clear paths to growth and may be better aligned with the preferences of today’s consumers.

For the Campbell Soup Co., the effort has been under way for several years. The company’s investments in fresh (Bolthouse Farms), children’s products (Plum Organics) and international (Kelsen Group) underscored its need to diversify. Soup, once perceived as the preeminent simple meal, is struggling in the wake of increased competition in the convenience category and no matter how many new varieties Campbell introduced, whether it was reduced sodium, on-the-go or natural, the segment could not gain traction.

The market research firm Euromonitor reported this past November in its “Soup in the U.S.” report that despite efforts by soup manufacturers to grow sales, it expected retail volume sales of soup to decline by 1% during the year while it estimated sales may grow by 1%.

“Soup makers have been introducing new varieties and supporting them with marketing efforts,” Euromonitor said. “Campbell Soup created Campbell’s Go Soup in flavors such as Moroccan Style Chicken and featured photos of millennials on the microwavable pouches in 2012 to attract younger consumers. However, Americans as a whole have not increased their at-home consumption of soup for a number of reasons.

“The improving economy has allowed some consumers to return to restaurants such as Panera where they can obtain an appetizing cup of soup and a salad or sandwich. Soup is not considered to be convenient because many canned soups are light in calories; they usually require the addition of bread or a sandwich to make a full meal. In turn, busy consumers looking for a one-item/dish meal solution find consuming soup to be inconvenient. Additionally, many consumers view canned soups to be poor in taste and do not like that it is highly ‘processed’.”

Campbell holds the No. 1 position in the market for soups and the question that has haunted management for the past decade has been how to grow the category. When Denise Morrison, president and chief executive officer of Campbell, announced the company’s new organizational structure, which will revolve around three business units — Simple Meals and Beverages, Global Biscuits and Snacks, and Packaged Fresh — she admitted that Campbell’s future growth lies elsewhere.

“The adoption of our new enterprise structure will be an important milestone for Campbell,” she said. “This reorganization will help unlock the value of our brands and the growth potential of our business. It will drive focused investment on our largest growth opportunities. It is the logical next step in our ongoing effort to shift our company’s center of gravity, accelerate our growth trajectory and maximize value for our shareholders.”

While soup will remain in integral part of Campbell’s product portfolio, it’s clear its attention is shifting as management focuses on growth and shareholder value.

Hershey’s confectionery quandary

The Hershey Co. is facing a similar dilemma as management attempts to devise strategies to sell more confectionery, mint and gum products. While seasonal sales of the company’s confectionery items around such holidays as Easter and Christmas remain strong, non-seasonal sales have been weak as consumers bypass the candy aisle and displays at supermarket checkout counters, and search for alternative indulgences.

“In 2014, we believe lower retail store traffic, changes in consumer spending patterns as a result of the SNAP program (reductions), and a more competitive snacking environment were contributing factors that impacted how consumers participated in the snack segment,” said J.P. Bilbrey, president and c.e.o., in a conference call with financial analysts on Jan. 29 to discuss the company’s full year results for fiscal 2014. “This resulted in fourth-quarter and full-year sales and earnings that were below our expectations. Specifically, growth in snacking alternatives and an evolving retail landscape are impacting what consumers buy and where and how they make purchases.”

It is with this backdrop that Hershey’s announcement it had entered into an agreement to acquire the Krave meat snack brand comes into focus. Like Campbell, Hershey is a leader in the market for confectionery products, but it is challenged, particularly in the United States, to identify new avenues for growth.

With the addition of the Krave brand, Hershey’s snacks portfolio in the United States is extended to include meat, spreads, dips and snack bars, which will be introduced later this year. The company hopes its diversification will provide growth as it competes in the market for snacks and indulgences, which is continuing to grow.

At a time when some consumer demographics are focused on health, clean label and transparency, Hershey’s product line may be viewed as not necessarily on-trend. Mr. Bilbrey addressed this issue during the conference call and said the company would have news later this year on its efforts to source non-bioengineered sugar and milk free of r.B.S.T.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Mr. Bilbrey’s presentation to the financial analysts came after several expressed concern Hershey’s shift into snacks and particularly meat snacks may distract management’s focus on its confectionery portfolio.

“We will always be diligent to not distract ourselves from the core business that we’re in, but we’re also in the consumer products business, and have to make sure that we’re meeting (the needs of) what consumers are always desiring,” Mr. Bilbrey said.

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