Campbell Soup CEO supports LGBT rights as an ally

Denise Morrison, CEO of the Campbell Soup Company
Denise Morrison, CEO of the Campbell Soup Company

In a 2008 advertisement for Campbell’s soup, a lesbian couple and their young son smile as they gather around a bowl of hot butternut squash bisque. The ad, entitled “Home for the Holidays” and placed in the Advocate, an LGBT magazine, promoted Campbell’s Swanson chicken broth as the “perfect base for soups.”  It also pitched the company — which Andy Warhol had made synonymous with conformist, all-American culture — into a public controversy over corporate advocacy of gay rights.

Seven years before same-sex marriage was legalized across the US, Campbell drew fire from conservative many groups such as the American Family Association, which accused the company of helping homosexual activists push their agenda with that ad. Campbell rejected the criticism, saying, “we support all types of families, regardless of how they’re defined, [and have done so] for more than 100 years.” At the time, Denise Morrison was a Campbell regional president, and her longtime mentor Doug Conant led the company.

Campbells Soup Gay Dads Ad from years ago
Campbells Soup Gay Dads Ad from years ago.

Three years later Morrison became the new chief executive and made it her priority to reinvent Campbell as a brand for modern families of all genders, races and sexualities. This year, she has was at the top of the FT/OUTstanding Ally Executives list from Financial Times for her continued support of the LGBT community. She has emphasized the need for the 148-year-old company, which sold $7.9 billion of soup and other foods in 2016-17, to “think outside the can.”

“It is clear consumers are changing. Their wants are changing, the family structure is different,” Morrison told a conference in Austin, Texas, two years ago. Millennials, roughly defined as those aged 20 to 35, are now the largest segment of the US population and  the most open to diversity. They affect how advertising budgets are spent at the world’s largest companies, a point not lost on Morrison.

Despite a century of Campbell catering to conservative middle-American families, Morrison said, “The newer, truer picture of the US household . . . is more likely to be a mosaic in different configurations.” She also pointed to the 17 million Americans who live in LGBT households.

Denise Morrison, CEO of the Campbell Soup Company
Denise Morrison, CEO of the Campbell Soup Company

Ms Morrison is a go-getter. She grew up in Elberon, New Jersey, the oldest of four daughters in what she has called a “high-achieving family.” She told CNN that her mother “taught us that ambition is part of femininity.” Meanwhile, her father, a telecom executive, brought her up with an eye for the business world. “I knew I wanted to be a chief executive, ultimately. I had that goal very early on,” Morrison said at a conference at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her younger sister, Maggie Wilderotter, later also became chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, and for a time they were two of just 24 women with this title.

After studying psychology and economics at Boston College, Morrison started work at Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods company, working her way up before moving to Pepsi and Nestlé.

She has applied pragmatism to corporate social responsibility. “To succeed,” she said, “our industry must drive innovation and marketing to fit in their lives and in their pantries.”

As part of this quest to adapt to a new definition of family, in 2015 Campbell rolled out a “Made for Real, Real Life” advertising campaign, depicting “modern American families.” The advertisements feature same-sex couples. One ad shows two dads eating Star Wars soup with their son and declaring “I am your father.” The company also promoted the hashtag #ForAllFamilies during LGBT pride month, while raising a pride flag at its New Jersey headquarters.

At Campbell, Morrison’s efforts have paid off. Each year since she took the helm, the Human Rights Campaign has named Campbell a “best place to work for LGBT equality.’ Under her watch Campbell’s share price has gone up by more than a third, even as food and consumer groups are grappling with changes to what people eat and how they shop. Of these shifts the 63-year-old said: “You can lead the change or be a victim of change.”