For years, the phrases “stabilize U.S. soup” and some combination of the words “V8” and “weak” have been heard during Campbell Soup Co.’s quarterly earnings conference calls with analysts.
Now, “turn around Campbell Fresh” is threatening to join the repertoire.
Campbell Fresh, a unit the Camden company established for Bolthouse Farms and other acquired refrigerated-food brands, was supposed to help Campbell speed revenue growth by moving the company into categories that are more in line with what chief executive Denise Morrison called “consumer preferences for fresh and healthier food.”
But Bolthouse has had a string of disappointing results dating back more than two years. That did not change in the results reported Friday for the quarter ending Jan. 28.
“The anticipated improvement in Campbell Fresh’s performance did not materialize as we expected, with sales declining 1 percent,” Morrison told analysts. “While we are making progress in addressing several execution issues, we face new challenges in the quarter with headwinds in the super-premium juice segment.”
To counter the latest “headwinds” — which Morrison described as consumers’ increasing aversion to added sugar and their migration to “functional beverages that deliver benefit such as protein, gut health, energy, and hydration” — the company is introducing 19 beverage items, including Bolthouse Farms B Strong, a protein drink with 70 percent less sugar than other brands, the company said.
During Friday’s conference call, Robert Moskow, food analyst with Credit Suisse, asked: “Why does beverage belong with a food company and maybe not with another beverage company?”
His thinking was that in soup, Campbell can always compete, but he wondered what Campbell’s competitive advantage is in beverages, where the “competitive environment is changing all the time.”
In defense of Campbell's strategy, Morrison said the company has a competitive advantage with V8. “I feel really good that we’re on top of the consumer trends,” she said.
Campbell’s Fresh, which includes some of the beverages Moskow asked about, had an $11 million operating loss in the quarter. Its sales of $257 million were down 1 percent.
Overall, Campbell’s quarterly sales were flat, at $2.18 billion. Operating earnings were $410 million, down 8 percent from $445 million in the comparable quarter the year before.
Campbell shares closed on the New York Stock Exchange at $46.14, down $1.56, or 3.3 percent.