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Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison talks corporate innovation in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 8, 2013 12:26 PM

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Campbell Soup Company CEO Denise Morrison was in town yesterday for the annual Front End of Innovation conference at the World Trade Center, offering a glimpse at how one Fortune 500 company does innovation.

If you still think of Campbell's as the tomato soup behemoth that inspired Andy Warhol, maybe you haven't been paying attention. The New Jersey company these days offers customized Goldfish crackers, and recently launched a new line of microwaveable soups exclusively through digital and social media like Spotify, Tumblr, and the Angry Birds game. The company also named a vice president of innovation, Michael Paul, in March.

A few nuggets from Morrison's keynote address, and my quick chat with her afterward.

• Morrison is an advocate of "fail fast, fail often, fail cheap" when it comes to developing new product ideas. Her ambitious goal at the company is to double the rate of innovation, while halving the cost and time spent cultivating new product ideas.

• "Not every great idea needs to be Campbell-generated. It's clear that partners and vendors and other external sources will generate innovative ideas for us."

• In thinking about how consumers will shop, cook, and eat in the future, Morrison says Campbell's is trying to understand emerging trends like "quantified lives," or "managing our bodies and diets through personal data and feedback loops." She cited Blippar as an example of how shoppers might use an "augmented reality overlay" on top of product packages to view multimedia, recipe ideas, or coupon offers. Coca-Cola's Freestyle drink machine, offering more than 100 different flavors of soda, is an example of "more distributed and personalized approaches to creating, sharing, and eating food." And she mentioned Reading-based Kiva Systems, now part of Amazon, as an example of "people and automated systems cooperating to achieve an objective." (Kiva makes robotic warehouse equipment that carries items to humans, rather than requiring humans to walk to the items.)

• "Our core consumers are baby boomers," but Campbell's is also trying to "build engagement with faster-growing consumer groups, like millennials and Hispanics."

• In launching its new Campbell's Go Soups, which she calls "portable nutrition" in a microwaveable pouch, the company relied exclusively on digital and social media, including Twitter, Spotify, Facebook, and FunnyOrDie.com. The target audience was those 80 million millennials between the ages of 25 and 30.

• "The top principle for disruptive and sustaining innovation is that it has to have a laser focus on customers. Innovation begins with their needs and expectations."

• She talked about identifying lucrative "drill sites" for innovative product development, a term I really like. One example: more than 80 percent of U.S. households now own a slow-cooker (a/k/a a Crock-Pot.) But most people have a very limited repertoire of meals that they make in it. So Campbell's is developing a new line of ready-made sauces that can be combined with meat in a slow-cooker.

• Last year, Campbell's opened a new $30 million "innovation center" in Norwalk, Connecticut for its Pepperidge Farm brand, which includes kitchens and pilot production lines for creating small batches of prospective new products. "Most of our businesses now have these innovation centers," Morrison said.

Afterward, I got a chance to talk with Morrison about how she gauges the impact of the company's various innovation initiatives. In various product categories, she said, "we look at the percentage of sales that come from new products, and whether those are disruptive innovations or sustaining innovations." (A sustaining innovation may be an extension of an existing product line, while a disruptive innovation is something completely new.) "We look at the percentage of sales they contribute on a rolling three [year basis]," meaning that a product is only considered new for three years. Depending on the product category, that percentage-of-sales target may be anywhere from the low double-digits to mid-teens.

Morrison became Campbell's CEO in 2011; she's a graduate of Boston College, where she studied economics and psychology.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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