Progresso has seen a lot of regression this year, as sales of the soup plunged and its maker, General Mills, decided to close the brand’s first plant.
While canned soup doesn’t resonate as it once did with consumers, General Mills is making several changes to the signature soup line that executives hope will stem or reverse the decline. The biggest: all of the chicken in Progresso soups now comes from birds raised without antibiotics.
Progresso is the first major U.S. soup brand to make the switch. It’s no small feat; nearly half of Progresso’s 85 varieties use chicken.
Progresso and Campbell’s dominate the ready-to-serve soup market in the U.S., each with a 42 percent share, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm. Heading into the cold-weather months when soup sales rise, General Mills hopes to snag more customers with the launch of a new national television ad campaign Monday with actor John Lithgow as narrator.
General Mills first announced the chicken change at its investors day in June and unveiled the new labels a month later during a new product showcase. The next week, Campbell Soup Co. announced its intention to transition all of its chicken to antibiotic-free by the end of 2018.
The Progresso marketing team, led by Ray Joncas, was looking at ways to improve its soups and last year presented a handful of enhancements — or potential selling points — to consumers. “When we put the idea of antibiotic-free chicken in front of them, it was such a strong, positive response. It had a five times greater preference than the next best thing. At that moment, we knew this was a really big idea,” Joncas said.
They also knew they had to hustle if they were going to make it by this year’s soup season and that meant revamping its supply chain.
“We weren’t seeing a lot of it in the market when we started working on it. It wasn’t showing up in the center of the store,” he said.
But consumers are more concerned about animal welfare and the overuse of antibiotics, which can hasten the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. Major U.S. chicken producers, like Perdue Farms and Minnesota-based Gold’n Plump, are changing their growing approach to avoid using antibiotics.
Food makers like General Mills and the suppliers need one another to move the needle.
“We started moving quickly and as we were developing, the market was also developing quickly. Securing that supply was challenging, but we are very comfortable that we have enough supply to meet our needs,” Joncas said.
Chicken that is never treated with antibiotics is more expensive, but General Mills said its Progresso prices will remain the same. The switch was also a good opportunity to redesign the soup can labels with a less-cluttered look.
The change took on greater importance following the company’s announcement in July of its intention to close the original Progresso plant in Vineland, N.J. Production will be consolidated at its Hannibal, Mo., plant.
The soup segment at General Mills is a microcosm of its larger strategic change. On one hand, the food giant is working to breathe new life into its traditional brands. On the other, the company is investing heavily in innovation that looks toward future trends.
While these changes on Progresso represent a brand renovation, the soup team also created an entirely new product line, called Good Natured.
“It is geared toward flavor exploration and people who prefer vegetable-based diets,” Joncas said. “To make it more filling, we have beans in there. And by being in a carton, it is going to attract a more natural-seeking consumer. Maybe a little bit more premium.”
The heartier soups hit many of the industry’s high notes: vegan, non-GMO and packaging made from renewable resources.
General Mills found that the carton appeals to some consumers familiar with retail outlets, like natural co-ops or health food stores, that sell other soups in cartons.
“It is small but growing,” Joncas said. “It will not be huge right out of the gate. But our expectations for it are high.”