Before the pandemic, Linda Lee would often head to her kitchen in New Jersey to put together a homemade meal for friends and family where she would cook beef bourguignon and osso buco from scratch. But as the coronavirus set in, the chief marketing officer for meals and beverages at Campbell Soup Company realized putting together a dinner this way every day, especially during the workweek, wasn't sustainable. She needed new sources of inspiration.
With Lee spending more time at home, she didn't want to forgo making her own meals but like a lot of the same people Campbell Soup counts as customers she wanted options that were quick, easy and healthy without making her feel stuck in a cooking rut.
One source she increasingly has turned to for inspiration are the same soups, crackers and tortilla chips she uses for dinner and snacks, which are finding another function as an ingredient to spice up a meal. Earlier this month, Lee had a can of Unsalted Cream of Mushroom soup that Campbell Soup is developing that she wanted to try. She grabbed the soup, her spices, a protein, vegetables, rice and other ingredients to make her own meal in a skillet.
"The pandemic, because it brought forth so many new households, and especially the younger millennial households, households that didn't necessarily know what classic or traditional recipes even looked like. It gave us an opportunity to use our products, to show our products being used in new ways."
Chief marketing officer for meals and beverages, Campbell Soup Company
The idea of using foods regularly consumed by themselves as ingredients has gained momentum during the pandemic, with companies such as Campbell Soup, PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division and Mondelez International noticing wider use of their products in this way by homebound consumers looking for variety.
Frito-Lay found in its Snack Index released in November that 53% of respondents have used snacks as an ingredient before. This has boosted sales of popular brands like Cheetos, Campbell Soup and Oreos by opening them up to millennials and other individuals who are finding new ways to use brands, or in the case of lesser known items, discovering them for the first time. The hope is the increased utilization of these products now could make them permanent pantry staples long after the pandemic.
"Before the pandemic, the types of recipes that our products were being used as ingredients for, they felt a little more classic and expected and they've been around for quite a while," Lee said. "The pandemic, because it brought forth so many new households, and especially the younger millennial households, households that didn't necessarily know what classic or traditional recipes even looked like. It gave us an opportunity to use our products, to show our products being used in new ways."
People have been using Campbell Soup products, for example, as ingredients for classic dishes before the coronavirus, like its Cream of Mushroom soup in green bean casserole or V8 in Bloody Mary cocktails.
But the pandemic has seen a resurgence in recipes online like Red Dog French Toast — where Campbell's Tomato Soup is substituted for milk in making a savory French toast — and more quarantine cocktails and mocktails being made with V8. People also are crumbling Goldfish crackers into soup and using Prego to make an easy-bake skillet lasagna.
Other consumers have posted their own concoctions on social media, such as by adding Pacific Foods creamy soups to chopped veggies and protein, and incorporating Pace salsa to leftovers or a breakfast meal.
Campbell Soup also has partnered with nonalcoholic mixer Ritual Zero Proof to create a mocktail with V8 and worked with Bon Appetit where one of the magazine's chefs created a tomato risotto using its soup. To promote its recipes online where consumers are spending more of their time, the New Jersey company is collaborating with Amazon Live, Pinterest, Reddit and other content sites.
"We're seeing the adoption of new behaviors. It's been built into their new rituals," Lee said. "Our efforts are [focused on] how do we continue this behavior that people have adopted, make sure that we're giving the right ideas and that we have the right innovations."
In recent years, nearly every food and beverage company has created websites and books filled with recipes consumers can use that incorporate many of their brands.
Hormel Foods' Spam has tacos, salads and slider recipes featuring the often-maligned meat. Mondelez touts spicy hot cocoa-Oreo cookie balls and Chips Ahoy chocolate cupcake. PepsiCo launched a cookbook called Bon-Appe-Cheetos to show fans how to integrate Cheetos into appetizers, entrees and desserts ahead of the holidays — it sold out in 12 hours — and another for the Super Bowl that included Doritos 3D Crunch Walking Tacos and the Mountain Mule with Mtn Dew.
Frito-Lay's Snack Index survey found potato chips (31%) and tortilla chips (32%) are the most popular snack food ingredients. But Cheetos is the most popular brand to use as an ingredient on its recipe website MoreSmilesWithEveryBite.com with Dangerously Cheesy Mac ‘n Cheetos and Mashed Paw-tatoes garnering the most page views.
Last April, Frito-Lay saw a 192% spike in online searches for Cheetos recipes. In fact, Cheetos has remained so popular that Applebee's partnered with Uber Eats in February to launch a virtual restaurant called Cosmic Wings that will feature menu items inspired by the crunchy cheese snack.
"Offering inspiring ways to enjoy our products in unique ways — like recipes — is a company-wide initiative for PepsiCo to address the needs for our consumers in a very nimble and agile way," Rachel Ferdinando, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Frito-Lay North America, said in an email.
Frito-Lay has even developed its own products using a brand as an ingredient.
Ferdinando said the company noticed at the onset of the pandemic that 70% of consumers noted they were preparing more meals at home and 35% said they were eating more macaroni and cheese. At the same time, it observed while the snack category was chock full of competition, the dried pasta aisle was "ripe for game-changing innovation," she said.
So last summer it created Cheetos Mac 'n Cheese, allowing the brand to grow with a never-been-done crossover product.
The product offering, Ferdinando said, has been hugely successful with Cheetos Mac 'n Cheese "quickly gaining share from big competitors and ... turning faster than other heavy hitting mac and cheese brands at large retailers."
Frito-Lay said with consumers expressing a desire in 2020 for more inspiration when it comes to cooking, the company spent additional time honing its consumer engagement strategy to lean more into providing recipes and offering inspiration on ways to cook with its products. It's all part of a longer-term strategy for the snacking giant.
Ferdinando said while using foods as ingredients gained momentum last year, it's a trend she said "will stick into 2021 and beyond."