Three hundred billion. That’s how many fine dining menus, scientific studies, product launches, social media posts, recipe websites and other data points are reviewed each year by Campbell Soup in the hopes of finding inspiration for a new product that resonates with consumers.
The parsing of these data points using technology, such as artificial intelligence, is a key pillar for the 153-year-old soup and snacks maker’s so-called Insights Engine: A process started three years ago that tracks and curates trends to improve innovation and expedite product development.
“When you look at data and AI and machine learning, it’s easy to say ‘I won’t use my brain, because the answer is going to come to me,’ ” Craig Slavtcheff, chief research and development and innovation officer at Campbell Soup, said in an interview. “That's not what we're facilitating. What we’re facilitating is a richer input into our thinking based on a broader and deeper set of data updated continuously that allows us to come up with better ideas.”
Slavtcheff said employees still need to take the data and use their experience to figure out how to move forward: Where is a particular trend going? Will it last? How can the company design a product to convey what’s happening? Is a brand in a position to embrace that trend because it is a little edgier, or is it better off waiting until the trend has more firmly entrenched itself in the marketplace?
Campbell’s Insight Engine has already contributed to a handful of recent product launches.
The company’s natural and organic brand Pacific Foods, acquired for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in 2017, was among the first to roll out oat milk more than a decade ago.
After the oat milk category languished for years, sales suddenly exploded and Campbell wanted to know why, where the ingredient would go next and when, Slavtcheff said. The company used analytics inspired by AI three years ago to determine when oats would make their way into soups, sauces, bakery items and confections.
In August 2021, Campbell debuted the first of those products with an oat milk soup that is performing well so far, according to the company. “We timed our launch based on that predictive analysis output,” Slavtcheff said.
More recently, in September, Campbell launched FlavorUp, a concentrated flavor addition for use in proteins, grains or vegetables. The impetus for FlavorUp, the company’s first major brand launch in six years, was brought on by a penchant for consumers to do more cooking at home because of the pandemic.
While the shift in eating habits wasn’t a mystery, figuring out the first three flavors Campbell would launch took some help. Using machine learning tools, Campbell looked online to see what people were cooking. What ingredients were they incorporating into their food? How were they using them and how often? In what ways were they describing the meal?
The valuable information led to the creation of three squeeze bottles: Rich Garlic & Herb, Savory Mushroom & Herb, and Caramelized Onion & Burgundy Wine that did the best job complementing the most common meals.
Thinking big by going small
While innovation at Campbell, similar to other food companies, has always been part of its DNA, the soup and snacks maker took a deeper look at how it went about doing it following the $4.9 billion purchase in 2018 of Snyder’s-Lance — the largest in the company’s history.
Once the deal closed, snack foods jumped from roughly a third of sales to nearly half. With snacking especially conducive to innovation, Slavtcheff said, there was a natural inclination for it to spread to other parts of Campbell’s business.
The company decided to benchmark the success of its innovation to its competitors using a formula that tabulated it as a percent of sales. Innovation, the company said, was a major catalyst for growing both its snacks as well as its meals and beverage divisions.
During Campbell’s 2017 to 2020 fiscal years, only 1% of its net sales came from innovation; today that figure has risen to 2%. It has targeted nearly doubling that total to 3.5% in 2025, which would place it among the best in the industry, according to the company.
“Perhaps no bigger area of opportunity exists for future growth in our brands [than through innovation], as we've transformed our capabilities in this space through a combination of technology and culture,” Mark Clouse, Campbell’s CEO, told investors last December. “This approach has meaningfully expanded and strengthened our innovation pipeline which has never been stronger and better aligned with consumer trends.”
In addition to technology, innovation has been accelerated by how Campbell’s employees work and the space in which they do it.
When Campbell started its new innovation approach, the company realized that the physical space it uses could radically change. It rolled out a significantly smaller lab space to favor more collaboration and networking spaces. Gone were smaller, individual workspaces; and in its place was one connected area.
While the smaller space may seem counterintuitive, Slavtcheff said closer quarters boost efficiency and speed to market by encouraging greater collaboration between everyone from the chefs and package designers to food scientists and nutritionists.
“We wanted to create this energy and excitement that you get by working next to each other and smelling the smells of ‘What are you cooking over there? What are you making over there?’ that this space facilitates,” he said.
In looking for ways to boost speed and efficiency in innovation, Campbell looked at other industries to determine which ones had rapid iterations of design and were highly competitive. It eventually settled on an unlikely industry in Silicon Valley.
“I would never go so far as to say we’re a tech company as we are all here driven by our passion for food. But [we’re using] all the goodness that came out of the world of tech, and applying it to food design.”
Chief research and development and innovation officer, Campbell Soup
Campbell embraced a process called agile design where the stages of product development — such as identifying ingredients and flavors, creating the packaging, designing the manufacturing process and completing necessary regulatory reviews — happen independently but at the same time. By addressing these stages simultaneously, product development accelerated dramatically.
Another process the company borrowed from the technology industry is what’s called the makers’ culture.
In the past, a firm like Campbell’s would come up with an idea, then refine it, before constructing the food and its corresponding packaging. Within the makers’ culture process, the company “has flipped the innovation process 180 degrees,” Slavtcheff said.
Campbell encourages its employees, including chefs, food scientists, package designers as well as those in other divisions like accounting and marketing, to offer up solutions or ideas — even if it doesn’t fall into their area of expertise — that could eventually make their way into a product.
“I would never go so far as to say we’re a tech company as we are all here driven by our passion for food,” Slavtcheff said. “But [we’re using] all the goodness that came out of the world of tech, and applying it to food design.”