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For several years, corporate social responsibility (CSR) advocates have suggested that companies will lag on solving their environmental and social challenges, putting them at risk - unless CSR is integrated into the company instead of cast aside in a silo. To that end, Campbell Soup Company is one firm that stands out for making CSR critical to both its overall strategy and brand value.
Almost 150 years old, the $8 billion food giant has witnessed plenty of change recently, both internally and externally. Campbell’s CEO, Denise Morrison, changed an old-fashioned food processing company into a more nimble and innovative operation. She has pushed the company to be more responsive to consumers’ needs while encouraging employees to step out of their comfort zones and take risks.
Campbell’s, along with its competitors within the prepared foods industry, really has had little choice but to evolve with the times. Consumers are more inquisitive about where their food is sourced, demand more transparency and ask for more sustainable and ethical ingredients. Campbell’s has been proactive on that front, as Morrison announced in 2014 when she insisted the company would to become one making “real food that matters for life’s moments.”
One way in which Campbell's held its commitment to transparency was with last year's announcement that it would disclose whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were present in its food products. At the same time, Campbell’s also went a step further by breaking ranks with many food companies and trade associations with its support of mandatory federal GMO labeling for food products. That decision sharply conflicted with the stance taken by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA); when Campbell’s announced it would end its membership with the GMA last summer, Morrison explained to investors that the company’s departure was driven by “purpose and principles” and it was not a financial decision.
Campbell's willingness to share information about its ingredients now occurs even before a consumer enters a supermarket. The company has launched a web portal, WhatIsInMyFood.com, that allows visitors to understand the ingredients that end up in Campbell's products, from its chicken noodle soup to Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. These are not just a simple list that appears on a product's label or package - consumers have a tool to understand how various foods gain that crunch, sweetness or texture. As with any food company's supply chain, some ingredients, such vegetable oils, cornstarch and sugar may be derived from GMO crops - or may not - but in any event, the consumer at least can really gain a deep knowledge of those ingredients before they end up in a shopping cart.
In addition to that microsite, social media has become the fastest means for the company to communicate with stakeholders and consumers about their concerns as well as changes that the company is undertaken. On that front, Dave Stangis, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Chief Sustainability Officer at Campbell’s, has contributed to the company’s agility at communicating to its stakeholders via platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
“Campbell’s approach toward social media has been evolutionary,” explained Stangis as he detailed the company's changes since he joined the company nine years ago. “During my first two weeks on the job, I was looking for a way to communicate progress between my start date and the first company sustainability report I worked on.” Stangis found his home on Twitter, where he has an impressive 14,000 followers and tweets multiple times a day.
Stangis and Campbell's stick to audience-based communication for their social media strategy. “We try to paint a picture as if our customers are looking into the window,” said Stangis as he noted the company’s efforts to be more transparent. “We want them to know what our employees are working on.”
Indeed, the ongoing conversation between the Campbell’s and its customers is a two-way street, as the company provides customers several options for communicating with the company. But this conversation is not limited to what the company is doing now – Stangis said it is also important for the company to display thought leadership on a wide array of issues, from community work to health to corporate sustainability.
As with any public company, Campbell’s has a rigorous policy covering employees’ use of online platforms. After all, it only takes one rogue or careless employee to spark a public relations fiasco. “People get comfortable on social media,” Stangis quipped. At the same time, platforms such as Twitter help various voices within Campbell’s share their perspectives with the company’s stakeholders. Stangis writes and reviews a sizable portion of the content for the company’s Twitter handle that focuses solely on its CSR efforts. But Stangis’s team and other employees across the company also have opportunities to build Campbell’s ongoing story on social media and in its newsroom.
Collaboration across Campbell’s various teams has also helped the company deal with changing consumer trends and external events that could easily throw any company a curve ball. For example, more consumers voiced their opposition to adding the synthetic compound bisphenol A (BPA) as linings for canned foods over health concerns. Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined BPA is safe, Campbell's listened to both consumers and advocacy groups, and announced in 2012 that it would phase out its use in its products. That process accelerated last year; in the meantime, Campbell's continued the conversation with its stakeholders on various outlets including Twitter until all BPA was removed from can liners this summer.
And just a few weeks ago, Campbell’s found itself in the spotlight again when Morrison announced her departure from the White House’s manufacturing council after the violence in Charlottesville. In the days leading to that decision, various users voiced their displeasure at corporate tweets that seemed out of touch. Stangis was quick to note Morrison had served on an exports advisory council during the Obama Administration - and the company, one that tries to stay out of the political spotlight, would have Morrison stay on the council. “She always thought that being on these councils was the best thing to do to support U.S. jobs and employment growth,” Stangis said.
But it was clear after the president's press conference at Trump Tower on August 15 that remaining on the council was untenable. Morrison also felt there were other ways to work on boosting economic growth – and after that decision, the company allowed supporters and critics of President Trump to duke it out in comments that are still posted on Campbell’s website.
Whether the company takes a stand on GMO labeling, racism, the Paris Accords or diversity, Stangis insists that Campbell’s decisions are not political in nature, but are made because they are the right thing to do. Even though Morrison made the ultimate call about the council, she still consulted the C-suite within the company’s Camden headquarters, including legal, public affairs, communications and Stangis – who, after seven years of reporting to the company’s general council, now reports directly to Morrison and has for the past two years.
It is important to remember that Campbell’s corporate responsibility commitment is to engage its employees just as proactively as its customers. In addition to communicating the company’s decisions through conventional means such as press releases and social media, employees are kept in the loop as major decisions and policies are made. Morrison held a town hall to explain her reasons for leaving the White House advisory council to employees.
This is not the Campbell Soup Company of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Other than the iconic soup can labels made famous by Andy Warhol in the early 1960s, much about the company and its customers' preferences has vastly changed. Cutthroat competition has moved sales from brick-and-mortar to the cloud, millennials' eating habits and health and nutrition research have transformed Campbell’s and much of the food industry. Through it all, Stangis is tasked with his two overarching goals: protect and build the brand. Stakeholders are clearly buying in, as Campbell’s is a mainstay in rankings that measure corporate citizenship and companies’ reputation in the marketplace.
Image credit: Campbell Soup Company
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.