Words of Wisdom with Sophie Arsenlis
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Arsenlis. Sophie is the Senior Director of Corporate Strategy at Campbell Soup Company, whose product portfolio extends beyond the iconic Campbell’s brand to include a range of high-quality soups and simple meals, beverages, snacks and packaged fresh foods. Since starting at Campbell’s in 2004, Sophie has worked across numerous brands including Condensed Soups, V8, Swanson, and Prego Italian Sauces. She’s demonstrated success through her keen sense of marketing strategy and product development, and most recently founded the Well Yes! brand with a team of Campbell employees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I am literally living the American dream. My parents moved here as adults in the 1970’s from Greece before I was born. They did not speak English and had only been educated in Greece through grade school (during the post-WWII depression). They moved here and worked in the restaurant and garment manufacturing industries until they were eventually able to open their own business. I grew up working alongside my entire family in our diner and still worked there even after I started my post-college professional career. The businesses were very successful for us as a family. My siblings and I were able to go away to an Ivy League school (all three of us went to Cornell!) without a huge burden of student loans upon graduation. And despite working alongside each other for so many years, we are still a very close-knit family (my parents have watched my twin girls daily since they were born almost 8 years ago).
I graduated with my MBA in Marketing in 2004, began working at Campbell Soup Company shortly after, and have been here ever since. Much like my parents, I’ve worked my way up, having started on the brand marketing teams for Prego, Swanson and V8, moving on to lead retail and business strategy, and was then the Director of Marketing for the Soup Portfolio, until my recent shift to Corporate Strategy. During my time as the Director of Marketing, I created and led a team through the creation of a new brand — Well Yes! — which was founded because we were disappointed that soups in the grocery store were not getting the credit they deserved for being wholesome, good choices for convenient meals. We then listened to a lot of people that ate our soup and they were dissatisfied too, because the soups were not as healthy as they would like them to be and didn’t have the tastes and textures that they wanted out of a great bowl of soup, and these interactions inspired us make a better soup that we loved eat ourselves.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading this team at your company?
This may be a bit risqué to share, but it’s certainly the funniest thing that happened while leading the Well Yes! team…. We initially landed on a brand name that had passed our legal clearance process to become a trademark. We used this trademark on early package designs and internal presentations for quite some time until someone at the company brought it to our attention that it was a registered internet domain site for an “unsavory business” that we did not want to be associated with. Needless to say, we had some good laughs and then quickly found an alternate brand name.
What do you think makes your team stand out? Can you share a story?
I think the thing that most differentiates the Well Yes! team was our positive attitude. It is not always easy to innovate in a company that has been making soup for almost 150 years, and many ideas had been tried before with some successes in the marketplace, but many failures. For that reason, we did have our share of naysayers in the company. But this team was truly unflappable, and we learned to ignore the criticism. We just knew that we could make a better soup and if we could get enough people trying it, they would understand why we were obsessed with launching this product. The true turning point was when we went on the road to sample to product with retailers. They loved the soup as much as we did, praised us for making a soup with such great ingredients and gave us the encouragement (and in-store support) to bring it to the marketplace in a big way.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
This is a tough question because what will work for one team may not work for another — cultivating the “perfect” team is not a one-size-fits-all situation. One thing that was key for us was to foster an environment where we were open to each other’s feedback. I think accomplished leaders can sometimes be intimidating and as a result don’t always hear the truth when they need it most. I sought to create an environment where no one was afraid to speak up if something about the product did not seem right — and that happened a lot because we maintained a very high bar for the food. I also remember a couple of my teammates pulling me aside for discrete one-on-one conversations about something I was doing that was not working for the team or something I was not doing that the team needed me to do. It’s always hard to hear the feedback at first but I was so grateful that they did that. It made the project run smoother and made me a better leader.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There have been so many people that have helped me get to where I am. I would never feel comfortable calling out one person because that would diminish the importance of the others. My family and parents were critical in my younger years by teaching me the value of education and to never take for granted how amazing this country is to have the opportunities that we have here. My husband is now my biggest cheerleader; when I start to doubt myself, he’s always there to convince me that I can accomplish anything I set my mind on. And of course, there have been many more in my professional circles. I have had the privilege of working alongside many talented mentors and supporters at Campbell’s. They have taught me to have the courage to be authentic and stand up for what I believe in.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Well Yes! is still quite new to the world but we are proud that we have made a soup that has developed such a strong following. We get unsolicited, personal letters all the time from people thanking us for bringing such a great soup to the shelves. On a personal level, I try to pay it forward by coaching and mentoring people at Campbell’s. I have developed a reputation as a cheerleader to others, encouraging them to tackle business problems head-on and take on difficult roles.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me…” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Surround yourself with great people who are experts at what they do. It may seem cliché, but for me if has been critical to be around talented colleagues — it helps breed talent within yourself. . These people will challenge and disagree with you often, sometimes slowing down the process. But in the end the product of your work will always be better. We had lots of debates while developing the Well Yes! recipes, and the getting to the brand name was especially difficult. I remember a particularly difficult meeting in which we reviewed a list of potential brand names with a group people at Campbell’s and no one liked any of them. We didn’t even have to ask their opinions; you could see it on their faces! However, we eventually landed with Well Yes! Because it embodied both the goodness of the food as well as the spirit of the team, it won everyone over.
- Get uncomfortably close to the consumer you want to reach. As a marketer, I will never underestimate the power of getting close to your customer again. We spent countless hours with the people that we wanted to win over with Well Yes! soup. We were in their homes and invited them to come into our offices to taste the food as we were developing the recipes. You learn such interesting things by getting close. For instance, we heard from lots of people that they were perfectly satisfied with the soups that they were buying at the store. But as we went into their homes, they were doctoring them with extra veggies and grains. That was a pretty big lightbulb for us. They had created all these workarounds and we knew we could make soups that were great right out of the package.
- Be constantly curious. I wish someone had told me earlier in my career how critical it was to have a strong curiosity in the work that you do. When developing Well Yes! soups, I became obsessed with soups. I ate a ton of soups- Campbell’s soups, other manufacturers’ soups and made my own soups from scratch at home. I am fairly certain I annoyed our chefs and product developers as I shot them random emails with questions on the weekend. But I truly wanted to understand why certain ingredients were used and why certain soups tasted as they did. This constant questioning and listening to others describe Well Yes! soups led us to draw some important conclusions on what made Well Yes! soups special so that we could continue bringing out more varieties that people loved.
- Seek (and recognize) support from the most unlikely places. I’ve learned that sometimes you find your biggest supporters and advocates in places you wouldn’t expect. We had prepared extensively for retailer meetings on Well Yes! These can sometimes be intimidating discussions when you are bringing a new product to the market, but it proved quite the opposite! The retailers truly loved the product (even more than we expected) and it offered the team an important source of validation. After those meetings, any time we were still doubting ourselves, we remembered their support and it made us believe in what we were doing.
- Don’t shy away from doing things differently. Doing things differently, especially at a 149-year-old company, can make some people uncomfortable. But those who are willing to do that will get rewarded for the taking that risk. When we as a team were willing to accept that, things became a lot easier for us as individuals. We developed a great deal of resilience in the face of obstacles and relied on each other for pep talks and encouragement. The way we did first-hand, intimate research with consumers and the speed at which we developed the recipes for Well Yes! soups was not standard practice for Campbell’s. This made a lot of people uncomfortable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” By Norman Vincent Peale. It’s a good reminder that there is little risk in dreaming big.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I recently heard a podcast featuring Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. They have such an amazing story. They taught themselves how to run a business through correspondence courses! But their curiosity (and perhaps naivete) made them extremely successful entrepreneurs. And through it all they still remain great friends.
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