Market leading brands are often used as the benchmark for soup. The power of branding can be so strong that caterers publicise the name at the point of sale. But own-labels are fighting back.
Manufacturers of well-known brands claim their products are better than own-label versions because of the quality of the ingredients, not to mention the huge amount of money invested in product development, advertising and marketing.
But, sadly for them, fewer consumers are now prepared to pay for the name. The gulf between branded and own-label products is narrowing.
Many food distributors, such as Countrywide Catering and Booker Fitch Food Services, are exploiting this and are launching rivals to the big-name brands such as Maggi (Nestlé Foodservice Distributors), Knorr (CPC Catering) and Batchelors (Van den Bergh Foodservice).
Own-label soup suppliers are no longer prepared to accept second-best status. Amanda Delaney, marketing controller for Booker Fitch's Unecol brand, says three years ago the market for own-label soup was "stagnant and declining". Now sales are rising with own-brand soups no longer regarded as inferior to their branded counterparts.
"Providing own-label in addition to brands is all part of offering the caterer a choice," adds Delaney.
As higher-quality own-label soups have been developed the stigma attached to using them is disappearing fast.
A perceived higher quality, placed in the consumers' minds by the manufacturers' investment in advertisements and marketing, helps reinforce the power of the brand.
But that doesn't always transfer to the restaurant. Customers prefer food that is home-made, rather than home-cooked, when eating out and soup is no exception. To pay £1 for a bowl of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup when a tin from a supermarket costs less than 40p is enough to make British blood boil. But there are few complaints.
And why should there be? Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup is a reliable, well-established brand, says Bruce Pergavie, director of European foodservice business for Heinz.
Little Chef openly acknowledges big brand names such as Ashby's, Flora, Nestlé, Cadburys and Waistline on its menus. "We wish to progress the promotion of brands where it is beneficial to both parties," says David Johns, a senior buyer for Forte (UK).
Although Little Chef uses Heinz soup it does not promote it, preferring instead to re-brand it as Chef's Soup and serve it with croutons for added value.
Five years ago, Little Chef steered clear of branded products, believing they diluted the strength of its own brand. But research proved the opposite was true.
On the motorway, Blue Boar service areas offer a range of seven soups. Catering development manager Peter Kitchener says the company believes strongly in branded products. "Branding makes a difference, the customers like to see a brand name but they also like value for money. If you can combine the two, you've got a happy customer," he adds.
Pavilion motorway services has decided to make more of soup. The company has moved away from tinned products in its nine restaurants and now buys a chilled variety with a 30-day shelf life from The Sauce Company in Scunthorpe.
Catering controller Ian Whittaker says: "Tinned and packet soups are the cheapest, but not the best quality."
The company still uses some tinned soups in its truck driver facility, which is more value-driven.
During the past 18 months, it has been refurbishing its restaurants and installing more attractive soup stations. It now also serves bread rolls finished off on-site in an effort to create its own brand awareness among consumers.
The taste factor
Soup supplier Chris Copestake, joint managing director of The Sauce Company, says: "More operators will seek to differentiate themselves and create more brand loyalty. Soup is the major profit opportunity in terms of mark-up."
Another company that supplies chilled soup is New Covent Garden Soup Company. Stewart Mackay, business development manager, says the company is supplying caterers who want to sell soup on the strength of the brand, and those who want to pass the product off as their own.
He adds that some caterers are dissatisfied with traditional tinned and powdered soups and want something that is fresh and convenient. The company established its reputation in the retail sector selling chilled soups in Elopak cartons and has recently introduced a two-litre carton for the catering industry.
"Our soups are considerably more expensive than canned or dried products, but caterers are prepared to pay for quality," says Mackay.
In an effort to make an own-brand for soup, contract caterer Aramark has developed Kettle Classics to promote the use of made-from-scratch soup. "It gets people thinking differently about something which has been on the menu for years," says Phil Arthur, the company's foodservices development director.
Branding is a matter of "supreme indifference" to Aramark - quality is the real issue. "Cost sector restaurants were built by clients at a time when foodservice was seen as a necessary evil. Quality was not as high as you would expect. Staff restaurants need to be the antithesis of the work-place. If you walk into a restaurant with a salad bar it's just a salad bar, but if it has an identity it has a different value," Arthur adds.
His counterpart at Gardner Merchant, foodservices director Peter Hazzard, says branded products are used in many areas. But in most contracts, soup is produced from raw materials or by using McDougalls' packet soup as a base and enhancing it with cream, vegetable garnish and croutons - thus adding value.
With this pressure from the foodservice sector, suppliers of big brand names must continue to invest heavily in their well-established names. If they don't, many believe the soup market will move to a commodity status.
Andrew Previte, senior brand manager for Maggi soups at Nestlé Foodservice, says the brand's job is to provide the caterer with what they want. The distributor's job is to offer them a choice.
As well as giving a brand name, suppliers such as CPC Caterplan with Knorr offer the caterer special promotions. The firm's current package is Soup & Salad with Hellmanns Mayonnaise. It is backing this with a booklet showing caterers how to use soup as a base in other dishes.
"The caterer is interested in good support and that is something where brands have a major role to play," he adds.