SAN DIEGO - Bumble Bee Seafoods, the 120-year-old canned tuna giant, is trying to make tinned fish cool again.
With viral YouTube ads, a trendy campaign targeted toward millennials and Gen Z, and a worldwide pandemic that skyrocketed the sale of canned goods, they have a few good things going for them. But the company - shaken by bankruptcy and industry scandal that landed its former CEO in prison - has a long way to go before it can claim a complete turnaround.
Earlier this year, Bumble Bee's longtime CEO Christopher Lischewski was sentenced to three years in prison for his lead role in a lengthy conspiracy to fix the price of canned tuna. As one of three major tuna companies, Bumble Bee's CEO was found guilty of manipulating prices in cahoots with Starkist and Chicken of the Sea. Last November, the company filed bankruptcy due to significant legal challenges and sold its assets to Taiwan-based FCF Co. for $925 million.
Since then, the company has retained its corporate headquarters in San Diego, and worked to revive itself from the depths of the scandal.
When Lischewski was taken from the helm, the company appointed the always-smiling executive Jan Tharp as its new CEO. With 30 years of experience in the industry and a fresh take on where the brand should head, Tharp has attempted a radical transformation at Bumble Bee.
Canned tuna, along with Bumble Bee itself, needed a complete overhaul. With fewer homemade lunches and a critical eye toward the fishing industry at large, consumers were turning away from canned seafood.
Now, under Tharp's leadership, Bumble Bee is shedding its grandpappy identity, and embracing the values (and eating preferences) of younger generations. Tharp answered questions from the Union-Tribune about what's changing at Bumble Bee. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Let's start with some history. Who was eating canned tuna in the recent past, and what's changing now?
A: When I was a child, my mom still made lunch and I took it in a brown bag to school. We had tuna pretty much every week, especially on Fridays. But as you morph into different generations, the world changed. If COVID wasn't happening right now, I could walk out of this building and eat lunch for $5 to $10 at probably 20 different quick-serve restaurants. People aren't taking their lunch to work. Historically, canned tuna has been a lunch occasion. So when the packing of somebody's lunch went away and was replaced with fast food and quick-serve, people stopped buying canned seafood. It becomes more of a pantry filler than anything else.
About two years ago when the company - the whole industry, really - was going through a bit of turbulence, we had an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. And we needed to anyway. If you looked at shelf-stable seafood, it was a tired category. It's been around for a long time and there hadn't been a lot of innovation. You could see that when you walked down the center of a grocery store. There wasn't a whole lot of excitement.
But when you look at what we actually have, we're selling an affordable, nutrient-dense, high-protein food. That matches up with what consumers are saying they needed and wanted. But we had a relevance issue. People weren't thinking about canned seafood. And so the challenge was, how do you reinvent yourself and be relevant to today's consumer?
Q: How did you approach that problem?
A: We talked to over 10,000 people to understand what consumers thought about our category and what they really wanted. At the same time, we needed to attract new talent into our business. We were able to match up tenure and passion for an incredible industry with a new vision. Several people joined us from huge companies like Campbell Soup Company and Disney, so that we could look at our company through a different lens. We started to ask, 'How do we improve engagement?'
Q: I'm assuming these viral ads on YouTube were part of that effort. They're funny and unexpected. Especially the one featuring an athlete, who's doing an intense workout. You expect the ad to be for Nike or Gatorade, and then at the end it's a tuna ad.
A: Yes, we just released our Yes! Bumble Bee! campaign, which puts tuna into a completely different limelight than how it has been thought of before. It's about showing up in ways that are unpredictable and unexpected, but we have a right to be there. When you think about that woman athlete who's climbing the rope and thinking about her competition, what a better product than pouched tuna? It's a clean, lean protein. That is so much better than power bars and protein bars. Most people don't understand that the only thing in that pouch or can is tuna, water and salt. It is the cleanest, most natural protein you can get. That's really what we're trying to do with the ads. Let people reimagine tuna differently. We have about 12 or 13 other ads that are equally as good pitching tuna in places that you wouldn't normally expect it to show up.
Q: How else are you trying to appeal to millennial consumers and younger?
A: We've got a pipeline of products that hit on protein convenience for different segments of the market. We now have a protein-on-the-run option, which is a brand new product. It's a tuna product in oil with an easy-peel lid, some crackers and chocolate almonds. We have a Bistro Bowl we launched up north of the border.
We're also focusing more on sustainability. In the last two years we've probably hired 40 new individuals. A lot of them are 45 years and younger, and they care a lot about sustainability and they care about purpose. They want to work for a company that's doing something bigger than themselves. We get involved in volunteer efforts to clean up the ocean and removing plastics from the ocean. We're also dealing with the social impacts of fishing, giving back into the communities in which we operate.
Q: How have these efforts affected the company's sales?
A: Well, one thing may skew our data. We were sold (to the Taiwanese company) in February. Then we went into COVID-19 on March 17. Frankly, I will say the noise that's created in any company within shelf-stable foods may be difficult to unwind. We want to be transparent and honest, but we've had this global event happen within 60 days of coming out of bankruptcy. Shelf-stable is an area people are shopping. We saw a massive increase during COVID, 6 million new users came into Bumble Bee alone, not just the category. We were flooded with new users, and existing users were buying more.
If we can hold onto those consumers after COVID through some of these advertising campaigns, creating relevance, talking about our sustainability, addressing our issues - that creates a very long runway for this category, which I am really optimistic about. If you look at the economy, I don't think things will turn around overnight. But I think we have a perfect product to put on the shelves across the world.
BIO BOX: Jan Tharp
Time at Bumble Bee: Before she was appointed president and CEO in 2018, Tharp previously served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Bumble Bee. She's served in various leadership roles at the company beginning in 2010.
Former employer: StarKist
Education: Tharp holds a master's of business administration from Columbia University and London Business School, and a bachelor's degree in packaging engineering from Michigan State University.
Fun fact: Jan's dad worked in the San Diego tuna factories in the 1940s
Favorite book: "The Book of Joy" by Desmond Tutu and Dali Lama XIV
Fun fact during COVID: I'm trying to be the North County cornhole queen
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