Darren Serrao has fond memories of Campbell’s chicken soup. Steaming bowls swimming with noodles were his comfort food of choice as a child growing up in Toronto. Little did he know that he'd eventually be tasked with speeding up innovation at Campbell's by introducing a whole new range of soups, sauces, and beverages at the 143-year old brand.
Surrounded by a multi-generational team of chefs, consumer experts, marketers, and package designers, Serrao tells Fast Company he's downed countless bowls of experimental soups and tucked into untold numbers of dishes spiced with trials of a new line of Skillet Sauces in preparation for a series of product launches this fall. "We are in the test kitchen every day trying different blends and we eat a lot," says Serrao. "I get to try everything from some very talented chefs. It's a terrific part of my job."
It's one that was mandated by Campbell's President and CEO Denise Morrison when she took the helm last year in the midst of slumping sales. Morrison's innovation overhaul was designed to drive product development by appointing teams like Serrao's that operate independently—and move more quickly—to deliver breakthroughs in soup beyond the can and meals beyond the soup.
Serrao says he earned his process-driven innovation chops as a teenager working at McDonald's. He may have been flipping burgers, but Serrao maintains he learned the value of a disciplined, repeatable process at the hands of McDonald's timed-to-the-second "operations machine."
"From an innovation standpoint it's highly relevant, because you are able to move through the process time and again no matter who you are working with," he says.
He's also no stranger to thinking outside the can at Campbell's. He was most recently part of the team that launched V8's V Fusion, which married the veggie drink (packed with beets, celery, and spinach) with its sweeter fruit cousins across the aisle. The process to introduce such trendy flavors as pomegranate and acai berry took well over a year, but Serrao and his team are speeding up—it will have taken just over twelve months to go from creating the current team to stocking the products on store shelves.
"That’s an incredible pace for any company to go from concept to execution," Serrao says, and credits Morrison's support as well as a working with a group of people who aren't afraid to challenge established beliefs. "They have a passion for the cause, so they are committed to what we are trying to do," he explains, but each team member is also encouraged to ask questions. "You have to have a lot of humility and curiosity so you keep getting to the heart of an issue."
It boils down to marketability. Which is why you won’t see any evidence of deconstructed chicken soup or vegetable foams a la Iron Chef. The popularity of celebrity chef television shows may be on the rise, Serrao says, but his team is looking world through a more practical lens, with a special focus on Millennials (ages 18 through 34). "We are looking at how they eat, what they buy, and what their pleasure and pain points are," he says. Finding sweet spots depends on an an iterative process that doesn’t deconstruct the food, but how people buy it.
Modern families are more likely to have two working caregivers who need convenience but want the flavors of global cuisine available restaurants and takeout. With neither the time nor the talent to recreate these dishes at home, Serrao says the market was ripe for new offerings. Pricier frozen options have taken their place among the peas and carrots in many supermarkets, Serrao admits, but Campbell’s new line priced at under $3 will make it easy and inexpensive to satisfy an evolving palate.
Through all his on-the-job sipping and sampling, Serrao’s taste buds have been re-tuned, too. Chicken noodle may always evoke childhood memories, but what he's really excited about now is Campbell's Go! Soup (in a gusseted pouch, not a can) coconut-curry chicken. If you’ll excuse him, he’s about to warm up a bowl now.
[Image: Flickr user Celeste RC]