Thursday, June 22, 2006

Campbell Soup

On the train ride into Toronto I had a conversation that was oddly appropriate for an America exit run. Much of the 17 hours from DC to Ontario was spent chatting with the man sitting next to me about his wife -- a food scientist who specializes in engineering new types of Campbell soup. It turns out that creating the next line of the quintessential American consumer product can be dissatisfying in many of the same ways as running for political office. Living in New York Ted and Vicky – a Kentucky native – grew to love Italian Lobster Bisque. Wouldn’t it be great to turn this into a Campbell line? Before going to market a soup has to be tested in focus groups in each region across the U.S. Because of the company’s behemoth production requirements, the new soup needs to get at least a passing mark in every region or it (doesn’t) get/s canned.

In the case of the Italian Lobster Bisque, Vicky held the Southeast focus group in her home state of Kentucky, only to find that her palate had apparently grown too sophisticated during her time in the big city. The Kentuckians wanted a heartier soup, something with beef and and potatoes. “Your state's a bunch of bumpkins,” said Ted after his wife told him about the trial. The soup got good ratings in the Northeast the Northwest and even the Midwest but with a good intended for sale in every grocery in the union, one region gets veto power over all.

A similar line of thinking also goes for the amount of salt added.

When Vicky is conducting focus groups on how much salt gets put into a new soup, those with the greatest sodium craving usually get their say. Someone who is use to more salt will not accept a product that doesn’t have enough whereas a person who doesn't usually like as much salt will often still enjoy a soup with a bit too much -- and after he becomes use to more salt this amount becomes his expectation.

And so you can see why we have a single can of soup fulfilling 80% of our daily sodium needs.

Herein lies the potency of American products abroad. If a brand (or style, or film) is able to fit across the entire spectrum of the American palette it is likely to be something that people will consume (but not necessarily love) around the world.

There has been a great deal of talk of a Global McDonalaldization. A kind of unending march of monstrous Ronalds consuming whole the indigenous cultures of developing nations. Everywhere I have gone I've found something very different.

For people in Bangkok, the trip to McDonald's or KFC is a rare cosmopolitan indulgence in life that is otherwise rich in local culinary diversity. Look at TV anywhere in China and you might see a Hollywood movie but more often you will see a Ming dynasty costume soap opera.

The horror of what has become of the American roadtrip -- a Twillight Zone affair of eternal visual reruns -- makes it clear that it is not the developing world that is most threatened with omniculture. Our next generation will grow up without even the memory of a neighborhood store. A nation without local commercial identities will be a human first and it is frightening to think of the consequences. Nations undergoing identity crisis often vie for relevance through external belligerence. Perhaps this crisis has started.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: