On any weekday morning, a dozen or so consumers take the elevator to the 19th floor of Cornwall House, a nondescript office building that's home to Campbell Soup Co.'s Hong Kong taste kitchen. There, they split off into carrels and take their seats before bowls of soup and eager food scientists. Chosen carefully to get the right demographic mix, such groups are assembled to taste the offerings that Campbell hopes will ignite consumer interest in China and other parts of Asia.
The menu might include cabbage soup, scallop broth, or a local delicacy such as pork, fig, and date soup. After up to an hour of tasting and observation, the technicians get their answers. Too much pork? Enough scallops?
EASY DOES IT. Such insights are crucial to Campbell as it tries to create new products to whet regional appetites. Diet is a function of local culture, and Asia in particular puts huge demands on a western food company seeking to crack its exotic markets. Campbell opened the Hong Kong kitchen in 1991 to reach 2 billion Asian consumers.
Cooking up regional specialties isn't easy. Fewer than one in 20 varieties tested may hit the stores. But Campbell can score big if it gets the formula right. At an average of one bowl a day, the Chinese are among the highest per capita soup eaters in the world.
Campbell enters new markets gingerly. It typically launches a basic meat or chicken broth, which consumers can doctor with meats, vegetables, and spices. Then it brings out more sophisticated soups. The Hong Kong kitchen already has a couple of hits to its credit: New scallop and ham soups came out of the lab. Campbell has also discovered a few surprises: Among the company's biggest sellers across Asia are such U.S. standbys as cream of mushroom and cream of chicken, which researchers believe attract westernized Chinese. But one Campbell breakthrough in China, watercress and duck-gizzard soup, was developed in the U.S.
Local ingredients may count, but Campbell draws the line on some Asian favorites. Dog soup is out, as is shark's fin, since most species are endangered. But the kitchen staff keeps an open mind when it comes to other fare. Snake, for example. "I admit we've tasted it," says David J. Wells, managing director of Campbell Soup Asia Ltd. Who knows? Campbell's cream of snake could emerge as the chicken noodle of the future.